ILNews

Supreme Court seems divided in property-rights dispute

Back to TopCommentsE-mailPrintBookmark and Share

A divided U.S. Supreme Court struggled Monday over a property rights dispute that could make it tougher for state and local governments to limit development in coastal areas.

The case involves a family’s effort to sell part of its riverfront land in Wisconsin. The family planned to use the money from a vacant lot they own to pay for improvements on a cabin that sits on the parcel next door.

But county officials nixed the sale for violating local conservation rules and treated the lots as a single property that can’t be split up. The family says that’s unfair and claims the government should pay what the vacant parcel is worth — up to $400,000. The government argues that when viewed as a whole, the land remains quite valuable and the family is owed nothing.

The case has drawn interest from property-rights and business groups that say such rules let the government avoid paying landowners for restricting land use. The Constitution requires compensation if regulations take away a property’s economic value.

During a one-hour argument, the court's four liberal justices seemed to side with state and local officials, while conservative justices were generally more skeptical. Justice Anthony Kennedy — often a swing vote in close cases — asked tough questions of both sides.

The court’s ruling could affect more than 100 cities and counties across the U.S. that have similar “merger” restrictions.

The Murrs’ lawyer, John Groen, told the justices the lots should be viewed as “independent, discreet, and separate parcels” because that is how they originally were drawn up and have been taxed for years.

But Justice Elena Kagan said the Murrs seem to rely on state law as it originally drew up the property lines, but ignore revisions to the law that treat side-by-side lots as a single parcel if they have the same owner.

“If we’re looking to state law, let’s look to state law, the whole ball of wax,” Kagan said.

Wisconsin Solicitor General Misha Tseytlin argued that the two lots “have merged for all relevant purposes under state law.” He said state officials also considered the reasonable expectations of the property owners.

Chief Justice John Roberts said it seemed “a little quirky” that the Murrs can’t treat the properties separately, but if they had purchased them under separate names they would be in “an entirely different situation.”

The case began in 2004, when four siblings in the Murr family wanted to sell the vacant lot on the banks of the St. Croix River. Their father had purchased the two 1.25-acre lots separately in the 1960s. They were later transferred to his children in the 1990s.

County officials blocking the sale point to regulations passed in 1976 that bar new construction on lots in the area to prevent overcrowding and pollution. A grandfather clause exempted existing owners. But the county won’t apply that exemption to the Murrs’ empty lot alone, because it is connected to the family’s other land.

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.

The county argues that a ruling against it would undermine its ability to minimize flood damage and maintain property values in the area. It argues that the family has treated both parcels as a single lot and says they could build a new home on either lot.

Justice Anthony Kennedy criticized lawyers on both sides. He said the family’s argument seemed to ignore “market factors.” But he also said the state should have to consider “the reasonable investment-backed expectations of the owner.”

The high court took the case up more than a year ago, but waited several months before scheduling arguments. Property-rights issues often divide the high court along ideological lines and the delay prompted speculation the justices were waiting for a ninth justice to join them.

Yet only eight justices heard the case on Monday, the same day that confirmation hearings began for Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch. He could be confirmed in time to sit for arguments in April.

A ruling is expected by June.

ADVERTISEMENT

Post a comment to this story

COMMENTS POLICY
We reserve the right to remove any post that we feel is obscene, profane, vulgar, racist, sexually explicit, abusive, or hateful.
 
You are legally responsible for what you post and your anonymity is not guaranteed.
 
Posts that insult, defame, threaten, harass or abuse other readers or people mentioned in Indiana Lawyer editorial content are also subject to removal. Please respect the privacy of individuals and refrain from posting personal information.
 
No solicitations, spamming or advertisements are allowed. Readers may post links to other informational websites that are relevant to the topic at hand, but please do not link to objectionable material.
 
We may remove messages that are unrelated to the topic, encourage illegal activity, use all capital letters or are unreadable.
 

Messages that are flagged by readers as objectionable will be reviewed and may or may not be removed. Please do not flag a post simply because you disagree with it.

Sponsored by
ADVERTISEMENT
Subscribe to Indiana Lawyer
  1. From his recent appearance on WRTV to this story here, Frank is everywhere. Couldn't happen to a nicer guy, although he should stop using Eric Schnauffer for his 7th Circuit briefs. They're not THAT hard.

  2. They learn our language prior to coming here. My grandparents who came over on the boat, had to learn English and become familiarize with Americas customs and culture. They are in our land now, speak ENGLISH!!

  3. @ Rebecca D Fell, I am very sorry for your loss. I think it gives the family solace and a bit of closure to go to a road side memorial. Those that oppose them probably did not experience the loss of a child or a loved one.

  4. If it were your child that died maybe you'd be more understanding. Most of us don't have graves to visit. My son was killed on a state road and I will be putting up a memorial where he died. It gives us a sense of peace to be at the location he took his last breath. Some people should be more understanding of that.

  5. Can we please take notice of the connection between the declining state of families across the United States and the RISE OF CPS INVOLVEMENT??? They call themselves "advocates" for "children's rights", however, statistics show those children whom are taken from, even NEGLIGENT homes are LESS likely to become successful, independent adults!!! Not to mention the undeniable lack of respect and lack of responsibility of the children being raised today vs the way we were raised 20 years ago, when families still existed. I was born in 1981 and I didn't even ever hear the term "CPS", in fact, I didn't even know they existed until about ten years ago... Now our children have disagreements between friends and they actually THREATEN EACH OTHER WITH, "I'll call CPS" or "I'll have [my parent] (usually singular) call CPS"!!!! And the truth is, no parent is perfect and we all have flaws and make mistakes, but it is RIGHTFULLY OURS - BY THE CONSTITUTION OF THIS GREAT NATION - to be imperfect. Let's take a good look at what kind of parenting those that are stealing our children are doing, what kind of adults are they producing? WHAT ACTUALLY HAPPENS TO THE CHILDREN THAT HAVE BEEN RIPPED FROM THEIR FAMILY AND THAT CHILD'S SUCCESS - or otherwise - AS AN ADULT.....

ADVERTISEMENT