James Madison, the author of the Bill of Rights, once said that “[g]overnment is instituted to protect property of every sort. This being the end of government, that alone is a just government which impartially secures to every man whatever is his own.”
The Supreme Court is now poised to hear a property rights case, Murr v. Wisconsin, which puts Madison’s principle to the test. The outcome may go far toward determining whether American governments will continue to respect established private property rights in an era of increased regulation — or whether they can avoid this duty simply by redefining “property” to make it go away.
The Murr case involves a family, a cabin and an adjacent, separate parcel of property that the government rendered useless. The story began in the early 1960s when plumber William Murr and his wife bought a small, recreational cabin on a lot fronting the St. Croix River in Wisconsin. A few years later, they bought an adjacent lot for investment purposes. That lot had separate boundaries and was taxed and treated as a piece of property.
The years passed, and the cabin became a gathering place for the extended family. When the Murrs’ children grew up, the Murrs gave them the cabin lot and the adjacent, vacant lot. Eventually, the family decided to sell the vacant lot for funds to fix the cabin.
The local rules seemed to allow this. Although the vacant lot was on the smaller side, it was grandfathered as a legitimate building lot due to its age — or so the Murrs thought.
Unfortunately, the Murrs soon learned that an obscure local regulation — enacted after their parents bought the two parcels — prohibited the owners of older lots from separately using or selling such lots if they also own an adjacent parcel. This meant that the Murrs’ vacant lot was not separate in the county’s eyes; it was part of the cabin lot they also owned. The practical result was that the vacant lot had been turned into open space. If someone other than the Murrs had owned the vacant lot, it could have been sold or developed independently.
Published by The Washington Times