9 months ago

Supreme Court schedules oral argument in Murr for March 20, 2017

By J. David Breemer Senior Attorney

Today, the United States Supreme Court issued its oral argument calendar for March, 2017. Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF) is pleased to note that the Court included PLF’s important property rights case, Murr v. State of Wisconsin, on that March calendar. The Court has specifically scheduled the Murr case for argument on March 20, 2017.

As previously explained in this post, the Murr case arises from a Wisconsin’s family’s attempt to sell or develop a small river-front plot of land which they acquired in 1963 for investment purposes.  The family also owns a different, adjacent lot containing a small lake cabin they use for family vacations and recreation.

When the Murr’s children grew up, the parents gave them the undeveloped lot and the cabin lot.  The Murr family later decided to sell the undeveloped lot to raise funds to improve the cabin or to build a second, small cabin on the vacant lot. Although that vacant lot had less building area than the County desired, it was grandfathered as a distinct, building lot due to its age —  or so the Murrs thought.

Unfortunately, when the Murrs moved to sell the vacant lot, they learned that local regulations barred them from either selling or building the undeveloped lot as a separate unit. The problem arose from a State-sanctioned ordinance that barred selling or building on older lots that are owned by people who also own an adjacent parcel.  Because the Murrs owned property (their cabin parcel) adjacent to the vacant lot, the ordinance required the lots to be combined and treated as one building or sale unit, even though they had always been platted, taxed and treated as separate lots. If someone other than the Murrs had owned the vacant lot, it could be sold or developed. But because they owned it, the local law prevented them from using it or selling it.

The Murrs sought an exception from this ordinance, but were denied. They then sued the local government and State, claiming that the government had unconstitutionally taken their lot, without just compensation, by stripping it of all independent, productive use.  The Wisconsin Appeals Court rejected the claim, though. It held that U.S. Supreme Court precedent required it to treat the vacant lot as an appendage of the Murr’s cabin lot in  considering if the government had taken away all use of the Murr’s property. Since the Murrs had a cabin on the adjacent lot, this decision to combine the lots as a single “takings unit” meant the Murrs could not demonstrate an adverse loss of use of their property.

The Murrs then asked the Supreme Court to review their case and it agreed.  After a delay, the Court has scheduled argument of their case for March 20, 2017.  The issues the case raises are critical to the constitutional property rights of Americans. The Constitution requires the government to treat property owners fairly by paying them compensation when it requires them to leave a plot of land unusable and in a natural state for some public purpose. If the government can get around this rule by aggregating all the parcels owned by a takings plaintiff —  ignoring separate lot lines  — to create a bigger property area subject to takings review, many Americans will lose Constitutional protections for established parcels of land. This is because expanding the property area before deciding if a taking occurs will typically lead (as in the Murr’s case) the government to claim the owner still has some use of their overall property,  and therefore, that it has no duty to compensate for the oppressive land use restrictions it imposed on the original, specific lot.

This is wrong.  When the government denies all use of a separately divided and taxed parcel of land, it is accountable to compensate for its actions against that parcel.  The property owner’s other holdings are irrelevant to that duty.  PLF attorneys welcome the chance to orally  make these arguments before the Supreme Court on March 20, 2017, and to once again defend the Murr’s- and all  American citizens’ — constitutionally protected property rights.

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Murr v. Wisconsin

The Murr family owned two separately deeded lots that were purchased independently by their parents in the 1960s. They built a small cabin on one lot and held the other one as an investment for the future. But when the time came to sell, subsequently enacted regulations forbade the Murrs from making any productive use of the vacant lot – and without any use, it had no value they could sell. PLF represents in the Murrs in a lawsuit arguing that the regulation was an uncompensated taking because it took away all the use and value of the lot. The courts ruled against the family because they owned the adjacent lot with the cabin, and therefore hadn’t lost everything.

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