Pacific Legal Foundation joins landmark Supreme Court property rights case; opening brief filed
November 13, 2023
Washington, DC; November 13, 2023: Today, Pacific Legal Foundation, in partnership with Paul Beard of FisherBroyles, LLP, filed its opening brief in Sheetz v. County of El Dorado, arguing that legislatures cannot use the permit process to coerce owners into paying exorbitant development fees.
“Holding building permits hostage in exchange for exorbitant fees is extortion plain and simple, whether it’s done at the permit desk or city hall,” said Brian Hodges, senior attorney at Pacific Legal Foundation. “Local governments cannot use the cover of legislation to skirt the Fifth Amendment’s prohibition against taking private property without just compensation.”
In 2016, George Sheetz bought a vacant lot in rural El Dorado County, California, and planned to build a small, manufactured home where he and his wife would live in retirement and raise their grandson. But when George applied for a county building permit, he was told he would have to pay a so-called traffic impact fee of more than $23,000.
The County claimed that George was required to pay that fee under local legislation that sought to shift the cost of addressing existing and future road deficiencies onto new development. Thus, the County imposed the fee without any evidence tying George’s new home to any specific public costs or impacts.
George paid the fee under protest and sued, arguing the fee was an unconstitutional permit condition under Koontz v. St. Johns River Water Management District, which established that the government cannot weaponize the permitting process to extort more land or money from property owners than is needed to pay for the identified public impact of the proposed building project.
That Supreme Court decision should have protected George from the County’s exorbitant demand. But over the years, California’s and some other courts have evaded Supreme Court precedents limiting government authority to impose excessive permit fees by creating a massive loophole that allows city councils and other legislative bodies to make such demands free of meaningful constitutional scrutiny. George is now asking the Supreme Court to reaffirm that property rights don’t get less protection depending on which branch of government violates them.
Sheetz v. El Dorado County was originally filed and litigated by former PLF attorney Paul Beard II, who successfully argued Koontz. Beard is now a partner at FisherBroyles, LLP, and will be arguing the case in front of the Supreme Court, with Pacific Legal Foundation as co-counsel.
The Supreme Court agreed on September 29, 2023, to hear the case. Oral arguments have not been scheduled but may occur in January or February 2024.
Pacific Legal Foundation is a national nonprofit legal organization that defends Americans threatened by government overreach and abuse. Since our founding in 1973, we challenge the government when it violates individual liberty and constitutional rights. With active cases in 34 states plus Washington, D.C., PLF represents clients in state and federal courts, with 17 wins of 19 cases litigated at the U.S. Supreme Court.