The U.S. Supreme Court gave the family of a Central Florida landowner as well as property owners and developers across the state and country a significant victory on Tuesday with a ruling that stands to make it tougher and more expensive for government agencies to protect the nations dwindling wetlands.
In a 5 to 4 decision, the court found that the St. Johns River Water Management District had imposed excessive demands on Coy Koontz Sr., who was denied a permit to build on a 15-acre plot outside of Orlando unless he offset or mitigated for paving over wetlands by restoring wetlands owned by the district several miles away.
Koontz died several years ago but his son, Coy Koontz Jr., said the family was ecstatic at winning a land-use legal battle dating back nearly two decades and giving other landowners a bigger stick to fight similar cases in the future.
As my wife said, it certainly vindicates my fathers decision to take this fight on, Koontz said during a media conference call organized by the Pacific Legal Foundation, a private property rights advocacy group that represented the family in the case.
Foundation attorney Paul Beard said the ruling would help protect landowners and set a higher bar for government regulators. Anyone who owns a home or business and wants to make use of it, they will no longer be subject to willy-nilly extortion demands from permitting agencies, he said.
But environmentalists, echoing dissenting justices, also warned that the ruling could weaken or undermine wetlands protection laws and other land-use regulations. Similar off-site mitigation agreements have long been an important tool for federal, state and local regulators trying to enforce a national no net loss of wetlands policy established by President George H. W. Bush in 1988.
The case started in 1994 when Koontz applied to dredge and fill 3.7 acres of his land while preserving the rest of the tract in Orange Countys Econlockhatchee River basin. The district rejected his plan, instead giving him the option of building on one acre or paying to restore district-owned wetlands several miles away to compensate for the environmental damage of plowing under wetlands on his own land.
Koontz sued instead, arguing the districts demands constituted an illegal taking by denying him use of his land without fair compensation. He won a $376,000 award at a trial court level but the Florida Supreme Court overturned that decision in 2011, accepting the districts argument that nothing had actually been taken from Koontz since he retained ownership of the land.
On appeal, the federal high court found the district actions violated Koontzs property rights.
Justice Samuel Alito, writing for the conservative majority, said the district over-reached, failing to meet two key tests established in earlier rulings requiring agencies to show a nexus and rough proportionality when demanding that a property owner take actions or pay for outside work, such as wetlands mitigation or road widening, in order to obtain a permits.
The case, he wrote, underlined the risk that the government may deploy its substantial power and discretion in land-use permitting to pursue governmental ends that lack an essential nexus and rough proportionality to the effects of the proposed use of the property at issue.