Land Use

Let’s hope Justice Kagan is wrong about this ominous prediction in her dissenting opinion in Knick v. Township of Scott: “today’s decision means that government regulators will often have no way to avoid violating the Constitution.”

In a 5-4 opinion the Supreme Court held that a property owner may proceed directly to federal court with a takings claim. In Knick the Court overturned Williamson County Regional Planning Commission v. Hamilton Bank of Johnson City (1985), which held that before a takings claim may be brought in federal court, a property owner must first seek just compensation under state law in state court. The State and Local Legal Center (SLLC) amicus brief urged the Court to keep Williamson County.

Knick v. Township of Scott involves a common theme before the Supreme Court. One party is asking it to overturn long-standing Supreme Court precedent. Unfortunately for states and local governments the precedent on the chopping block arises in the property rights context (where the more conservative Supreme Court tends to favor property owners) and is generally considered favorable to states and local governments.  

The Township of Scott adopted an ordinance requiring cemeteries, whether public or private, to be free and open and accessible to the public during the day. Code enforcement could enter any property to determine the “existence and location” of a cemetery.

The Constitution’s Takings Clause states that “private property [shall not] be taken for public use, without just compensation.” Rose Mary Knick sued the county in federal (rather than state) court claiming the ordinance was invalid per the Takings Clause after code enforcement went onto her property without a warrant looking for a cemetery.

It has been a number of years since states and local governments have won a property rights case. But in Murr v. Wisconsin the Supreme Court concluded 5-3 that no taking occurred where state law and local ordinance “merged” nonconforming, adjacent lots under common ownership, meaning the property owners could not sell one of the lots by itself. The State and Local Legal Center (SLLC), filed an amicus brief, which the Court cited two times, arguing that these very common provisions are constitutional. 

In Murr v. Wisconsin the Supreme Court will decide whether merger provisions in state law and local ordinances, where nonconforming, adjacent lots under common ownership are combined for zoning purposes, may result in the unconstitutional taking of property. The State and Local Legal Center (SLLC) filed an amicus brief arguing that these very common provisions are constitutional. 

The Murrs owned contiguous lots E and F which together are .98 acres. Lot F contained a cabin and lot E was undeveloped. A St. Croix County merger ordinance prohibits the individual development or sale of adjacent lots under common ownership that are less than one acre total. But the ordinance treats commonly owned adjacent lots of less than an acre as a single, buildable lot.

The Murrs sought and were denied a variance to separately use or sell lots E and F. They claim the ordinance resulted in an unconstitutional uncompensated taking.        

In T-Mobile South v. City of Roswell the Supreme Court will decide whether a letter denying a cell tower construction application that doesn’t explain the reasons for the denial meets the Telecommunications Act of 1996 (TCA) “in writing” requirement.  The State and Local Legal Center’s (SLLC) amicus brief argues it does.  This case will...

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