RELEASE: Supreme Court accepts major PLF property rights case from Florida

October 05, 2012 | By PAUL BEARD

Pacific Legal Foundation just issued this press release:

Orange County, FL:  October 5, 2012:  The U.S. Supreme Court announced today that it will hear a major property rights case out of Florida, in which attorneys with Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF) represent property owner Coy Koontz Jr.

The case – St. Johns River Water Management District v. Koontz – challenges the confiscatory and unconstitutional demands that a local government agency imposed on the Koontz family as a condition of giving permission to develop the family’s property.

Donor-supported PLF is the leading legal watchdog organization that litigates for limited government and property rights, in courts nationwide.  PLF’s Atlantic Center is headquartered in Stuart, Florida.  Today’s announcement by the Supreme Court brings to eight the number of PLF direct-representation cases for liberty and limited government that have been accepted by the High Court over PLF’s four-decade history.   Of the seven previous PLF cases at the Supreme Court, PLF has won six – most recently, Sackett v. EPA, which was decided earlier this year.

PLF Principal Attorney Paul J. Beard issued this statement today, in response to the Supreme Court’s acceptance of the Koontz case: “Property owners large and small, from coast to coast, should be thankful that the U.S. Supreme Court has accepted this important property rights case.   If the Koontz family can be hit with the government rip-off that happened in this case, then everybody’s property rights are put at risk.   The Koontz family merely wanted to exercise their rights as property owners, to develop the family’s land in legal and responsible ways.  But regulators saw a chance to pounce and make all kinds of costly, unrelated, outrageous demands.  Without any justification, the government demanded money, labor and resources as the price for allowing the Koontzes to use their own land.  This was a flat-out shakedown, a form of extortion.  And government shakedowns of property owners aren’t just wrong, they’re unconstitutional.  The Supreme Court is to be applauded for deciding to weigh in on this injustice.”

For years, the father of PLF’s client, the late Coy Koontz, Sr., sought to develop the vacant, commercially zoned land that he owned, immediately south of State Road 50 and east of State Road 408, in Orange County.

But the St. Johns River Water Management District refused to issue any of the necessary permits, because Koontz would not agree to costly and unjustified conditions that the District imposed as the price of getting a permit.  Specifically, the District demanded that Koontz dedicate his money and labor to make improvements to 50 acres of District-owned property located miles away from the proposed project.

“The demand that Mr. Koontz spend his resources improving government-owned property, miles away from his own land, bore no connection to the development project that he proposed,” said Beard.  “In other words, what we have here is a classic case of an unconstitutional shakedown.  The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that government violates property rights — it commits a ‘taking’ in violation of the Fifth Amendment — if it tries to use the permitting process to extract conditions that aren’t related to the impact of the proposed development.”

Officially, most of the 3.7 acres that Mr. Koontz sought to develop lay within a habitat protection zone, and was classified as wetlands subject to District jurisdiction.  But the property had actually been seriously degraded, and made unfit for animal habitat, because of development on adjacent land owned by others, including government land.  Nevertheless, Mr. Koontz offered to mitigate for the proposed disturbance of wetlands by dedicating 11 acres of his own land in the vicinity (nearly 80 percent of his property in the area) to the state for conservation.

But the District was not satisfied with this offer.  Instead, it demanded that Mr. Koontz replace culverts and plug ditches on some of the District’s own property located up to seven miles away.  Cost estimates for the off-site work ranged from $10,000 (the District’s estimate) to between $90,000 and $150,000 (Koontz’s expert’s estimate).

“The District never demonstrated how the off-site improvement of 50 acres of wetlands on government lands was related in nature or extent to the alleged impact of Mr. Koontz’s proposed development on little more than three acres of his own property,” said PLF’s Beard.

Mr. Koontz refused the District’s unreasonable demand.  Because of his refusal to comply, the District denied his permit applications outright.

The Koontz family sued in state court, arguing that their Fifth Amendment rights had been violated, and they won at the trial and appellate levels.  After the District issued the necessary permits without the off-site mitigation condition, Mr. Koontz was awarded damages for the period of time during which the District unlawfully withheld permits.

However, the Florida Supreme Court then ruled for the District, refusing to recognize that the District had imposed an unconstitutional taking.  Coy Koontz, Sr., died before he could see his property developed, and his son took over his legal battle.

“We petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to take the case, because the District unconstitutionally used the permit process for its own gain, not as a means of reasonable regulation of property use,” said Beard.

Nollan v. California Coastal Commission is the landmark 1987 U.S. Supreme Court ruling establishing that governments can’t impose unrelated demands as the price of permits or other regulatory actions.  The Nollan case was brought to the Supreme Court by Pacific Legal Foundation, and one of PLF’s ongoing missions is to force regulators to abide by Nollan’s principles.