WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court on Friday ruled against a
Wisconsin family in a property rights case that makes it easier
for government officials to restrict development in
environmentally sensitive areas.
The 5-3 ruling involved the family’s effort to sell part of its
land along the St. Croix River. They planned to use the proceeds
from an empty lot to pay for improvements on a cabin that sits on
County officials had barred the sale because conservation rules
treat the two lots as a single property that can’t be divided.
The family claimed those rules essentially stripped the land of
its value and asked the government for compensation. The
government argued that it’s fair to view the property as a whole
and said the family is owed nothing.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, joining the court’s liberal members,
called the government’s action “a reasonable land-use regulation”
meant to preserve the river and surrounding land. He said the
property as a whole remains valuable and the family could not
claim they expected to sell or develop the lots separately given
regulations that existed before they acquired the lots.
In dissent, Chief Justice John Roberts said the majority had
undermined the Constitution’s protections for private property
owners. He said the court should have relied on state property
lines to define the relevant parcel of land rather than consider
The case was closely watched by property rights and business
groups that say it should be easier for landowners to get
compensation when government regulations restrict land use. More
than 100 cities and counties across the U.S. have similar
“merger” restrictions that treat two adjacent properties as one
if they have the same owner.
At issue is the constitutional requirement that private property
can’t be taken for public use “without just compensation.”
The dispute began when four siblings from the Murr family tried
to sell the vacant lot in 2004 to pay for improvements on a
rustic cabin that sits on the plot next door. Their father had
purchased the two 1.25-acre lots separately in the 1960s and both
parcels had been taxed separately. The lots were later
transferred to his children in the 1990s.
County officials blocked the sale, citing 1976 regulations that
bar new construction on lots in the area to prevent overcrowding
and pollution. A “grandfather” clause exempted existing owners,
but the county said it didn’t apply to the Murrs’ empty lot alone
since it was connected to the family’s other land.
The Murrs wanted the government to pay what the vacant property
is worth — it was assessed at $400,000 — since the regulations
prevented them from building on it. A Wisconsin appeals court
sided with the county, saying zoning rules did not take away the
property’s value because the Murrs could still use both lots as a
vacation property or sell them as a whole.