Supreme Court Rules for Property Owner in Koontz v. St. Johns River Water Management District

The U.S. Supreme Court today decided Koontz v. St. Johns River Water Management District. But unlike the previous two, unanimous Takings Clause rulings issued this Term by the justices in Arkansas Game and Fish Commission v. United States and Horne v. Department of Agriculture, the decision in Koontz reflected a sharply divided Court, in a 5-4 vote. Koontz also appears to be the most significant of the Supreme Court’s three takings decisions this year.

As previewed in earlier Legal Planet posts authored by my colleagues and me, the Koontz case raises two important legal issues under the so-called “unconstitutional conditions” corner of regulatory takings law: 1) whether the Nollan/Dolan standard, which requires that government-imposed project conditions have a nexus to and rough proportionality with the projected effects of a proposed project, applies to project denials as well as project approvals; and 2) if the Nollan/Dolan test applies to monetary exactions as well as government’s compelled dedications of real property.

Justice Alito–who has emerged in recent years as the Court’s most conservative justice on property rights issues–wrote for the majority in Koontz. His opinion reverses a ruling by the Florida Supreme Court that had found in favor of local government regulators on both of the above issues.  Alito’s majority opinion was joined by the conservative wing of the Court: Chief Justice Roberts, Justices Scalia and Thomas and–critically–Justice Kennedy.  Justice Kagan authored a dissenting opinion in Koontz, joined by Justices Breyer, Ginsburg and Sotomayor.  Critically, Kagan’s dissent is limited to the second issue raised by the case: whether monetary exactions are subject to the Nollan/Dolan test.  The dissenters agreed with the majority that the unconstitutional conditions rule applies fully to project denials, just as it does to private project approvals.

It remains to be seen whether the Supreme Court majority is correct in its prediction that today’s decision in Koontz “will not work a revolution in land use law or unduly limit the discretion of local land use authorities to implement sensible land use regulations.”  What is clear is that property owners have achieved a clean sweep in the three Takings Clause cases decided by the Supreme Court this Term.

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Richard Frank is Professor of Environmental Practice and Director of the U. C. Davis School of Law’s California Environmental Law & Policy Center. From 2006-2010, …

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