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Supreme Court Sides With Wisconsin In Property Rights Case


The U.S. Supreme Court delivered a victory today to state and local governments and environmental groups with a major property rights decision. By a 5-3 vote, the justices sided with the government in certain disputes with private property developers. NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: The Constitution bars the taking of private property by the government without just compensation. And the Supreme Court for a century has said that when the government goes too far in regulating property so as to make it economically unusable, the government also has to compensate the owner. The question is how to measure when the government has gone too far. In recent decades, property rights advocates have aggressively tried to enforce property rights. At the same time, cities and states seeking to manage urban sprawl, water pollution, runoff, flooding and other problems have enacted regulations to limit what some property owners can do with their land.

Today's test case involved two plots of land bought by William and Margaret Murr in the 1960s overlooking the picturesque grandeur of the St. Croix River in Wisconsin. In 1972, the river was designated for protection and the state enacted regulations to preserve its scenic and recreational qualities. The regulations barred building on any lot smaller than one acre of land. The Murrs' two lots, including a cabin on one, combined to cover just under an acre suitable for development.

So after the Murrs transferred the lots to their four children in the 1990s, the younger Murrs were denied permission to build on the second lot. Under the regulations, they could build a house that was bigger than the existing one, but they could not have two houses on the two lots which now were considered merged into one. They challenged the regulations in the state courts as an unconstitutional taking. As Donna Murr told the Pacific Legal Foundation...


DONNA MURR: I feel like a part of our family has been stolen from us.

TOTENBERG: After losing in the state courts, the Murrs appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. But today the justices ruled in favor of the regulators.

JOHN GROEN: This decision is a bit of a shock.

TOTENBERG: John Groen of the Pacific Legal Foundation represented the Murrs.

GROEN: It undermines traditional understandings of property rights.

TOTENBERG: Harvard Law School's Richard Lazarus calls the decision a huge victory for government regulators and environmentalists.

RICHARD LAZARUS: This is a clean, big win.

TOTENBERG: The reason, he explains, is that when the government regulates private land use...

LAZARUS: It almost never says that you can't do anything with all the property you own. It just looks at the most environmentally sensitive part and restricts your use of that piece.

TOTENBERG: And what the Supreme Court said today was that property owners are not entitled to compensation from the government when regulations reduce the value of the property by a relatively small portion and where, as in this case, those regulations to some degree have enhanced the value of the property. Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.


Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.