Although today’s start of the Supreme Court’s new term brings prediction after predictionabout the important cases on the docket, it can be difficult to forecast the impact of the Court’s decisions. For property owners, for example, the June 25 decision in Koontz vs. St. Johns River Water Management District could have just as far-reaching an effect as the more high-profile cases involving the Voting Rights Act or Defense of Marriage Act.
This case began in 1994, when Coy Koontz, a Florida landowner, applied for a permit to develop a portion of his property. Because his land was designated as wetlands under Florida law, Koontz was required to enhance wetlands elsewhere as part of his application. He proposed to develop 3.7 acres and give his remaining 11 acres to the district for conservation.
The permitting agency, the St. Johns River Water Management District, refused to approve Koontz’s construction unless he met one of two conditions: 1) reduce the size of his development to 1 acre and reserve the remaining 14 acres for conservation; or 2) continue with his existing proposal and pay for conservation improvements on district-owned wetlands elsewhere.
When Koontz sued, the courts were forced to interpret the case based on previous Supreme Court decisions which allowed government to condition land permits only if there was a “nexus” and “rough proportionality” between its demand and the effect of the land use. In Koontz, the Supreme Court ruled that these requirements still applied, even though Koontz’s permit was denied (not approved with conditions) and even though his land was not taken (and only financial demands were made). “We hold that the government’s demand for property from a land-use permit applicant must satisfy the requirements of Nollan and Dolan even when the government denies the permit and even when its demand is for money.” (Koontz at 22).
This broad reading of the Constitution’s Fifth Amendment Takings Clause, which seemingly requires government to show a connection between its land requirements and its financial demands, promises to strengthen the rights of property owners and developers while placing additional burdens on local governments. Potentially, every governmental financial demand may be constitutionally challenged by property developers, and much litigation is likely to result as future courts grapple with the ramifications of the Koontz decision.