Today the U.S. Supreme Court will consider Koontz v. St. Johns River Water Management District, a case which some legal observers have characterized as "grand theft real estate".    Aside from being the most significant property rights case the Supreme Court will consider this term, the decision in Koontz will in all likelihood, have a direct impact on property rights in Martin County.

      In Koontz, the St. John's Water Management District (SJRWMD) refused to grant the applicant a permit to use his property without deeding 75% of his property to conservation AND funding unrelated of improvements to 50 acres of public land several miles away.  The applicant agreed to place his property in conservation, but refused the fund the unrelated improvements to public land.   SJRWMD denied the permit and Koontz filed suit alleging a regulatory taking by SJRWMD.  The trial court and the Fifth District Court of Appeal found in favor of the applicant, while the Florida Supreme Court reversed the lower court rulings.

    The issues before the Court today are whether SJRWMD's permit condition violates the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment, which requires the government to pay just compensation for taking private property.  In addition, the Supreme Court will decide whether SJRWMD violated two prior Supreme Court decisions which placed strict limits on conditions the government can impose when issuing permits.

     Hopefully, the Supreme Court will once and for all, provide much needed clarity as to when the government must pay property owners for taking their private property.

UPDATE – Last summer the Supreme Court issued its opinion in Koontz v. St. Johns River Water Management District.  While the opinion is being deemed a victory for Mr. Koontz and property rights advocates in general, the Court’s opinion did little to bring any clarity to defining when or how much, the government must pay property owners for taking their private property. Instead the opinion, which presumably was intentionally drafted in complex legalise to avoid putting the issue to bed once and for all, essentially held that when approval of a permit is conditioned upon the dedication of property or paying of money, the government must show a nexus and rough proportionality of the demand to the impacts of the proposed land use.  That having been said, the Court took no position on whether SJRWMD’s actions were lawful with regard to Mr. Koontz, but instead punted the ball back to the trial court to resolve the issue of the legality of SJRWMD’s actions. 

The effects of the opinion are still being deciphered and debated in legal circles, but in the end, all sides seem to agree this case broadens a property owners rights to challenge governmental land use decisions.  Broadening the rights of property owners is always a good thing.  However, what would have been far better would have been a decisive opinion definitively laying out a bright line test identifying exactly when a governmental taking of private property occurs.  The obvious benefit of such a definitive decision would be to level the playing field between property owners and governmental entities thereby serving to actually prevent the next Koontz case.  By continuing to rely upon vague and subjective concepts rather than definitive requirements, the groundwork has unfortunately been laid for the next great “landmark” property rights case.