New Supreme Court Decision on Land Use: Koontz v. St. Johns River Water Management District

Ajoke Agboola, currently a clerk for the Honorable Marcella A. Holland of the Circuit Court for Baltimore City who is interested in focusing on land use and real estate after her clerkship, contributed the following summary of Koontz v. St. Johns River Water Management District:

In the last week of June, the Supreme Court of the United States handed down a number of high profile decisions. In the midst of the blockbuster decisions concerning affirmative action, gay rights and voting rights, a decision that received very little national attention, Koontz v. St. Johns River Water Management District, quietly expanded the rights of private property owners everywhere.

In the early 1990s, Mr. Koontz sought to develop 3.7 acres of a 14.9 acre parcel of land near a major thoroughfare east of Orlando, Florida. In order to comply with Florida law concerning wetlands, which most of his property was, Mr. Koontz needed a permit from the St. Johns River Water Management District. In exchange for a permit, Mr. Koontz offered to permanently conserve the remaining 11.2 acres of his land. The District did not think this offer was good enough and instead proposed two different options -1) develop only one acre and conserve the rest or 2) pay for improvements to other government owned wetlands within the same watershed but several miles away. The District also stated that it would favorably consider other equivalent options.

Mr. Koontz declined both options, did not propose any other mitigation projects and subsequently sued the District. He claimed that the District’s conditions constituted a taking under the Supreme Court’s Nollan and Dolan decisions. After many years winding through the Florida legal system, the Florida Supreme Court held that Nollan/Dolan level scrutiny was inapplicable because the District did not approve his permit on the condition that he accede to the District’s proposals, rather, the District denied his permit application because Mr. Koontz refused to make concessions. Secondly, the Florida Supreme Court distinguished a demand for an interest in real property, as in Nollan and Dolan, from a demand for money. The Supreme Court reversed and remanded both counts.

The Court, in an opinion written by Justice Alito, held that under the unconstitutional conditions doctrine, the government’s demand for property from a land use permit application must satisfy the Nollan/Dolan requirements even when it denies the permit and that the Nollan/Dolan requirements apply even when the government is demanding money instead of real property.

There are some in the land use community that consider this decision “an unnecessary blow to state and local governments attempting to reduce development impacts on the environment as well as engage in good-faith discussions with landowners to determine appropriate mitigation efforts.” Others are pleased that the Court has finally given lower courts “clear direction as to the proper application of the Constitution’s Takings Clause in the land use exactions context.” How this decision will impact land use agencies in the Maryland/DC area is yet to be determined. However, as land use attorney Gus Bauman told me, one thing is certain, “Koontz will have a definite impact on everyone. It’s crystal clear.”

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