The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Koontz v. St. John’s River Water Management District that “Extortionate demands for property in the land use permitting context run afoul of the (Constitution’s) Takings Clause not because they take property but because they impermissibly burden the right not to have property taken without just compensation.”
In 1972 Mr. Koontz purchased 14.9 acres next to a divided four lane highway east of Orlando. In 1994 he decided to develop 3.7 acres of his land. Knowing he had to comply with Florida’s Wetlands Protection Act, Koontz proved to the district that development of the 3.7 acres of wetland was not contrary to the public interest as defined by the regulations in the Wetlands Protection Act and offered to foreclose any possible future development of the balance of his property by giving St. Johns a conservative easement on the balance of the land.
Unfortunately, under the guise of saving the environment, water management districts in Florida were given incredible power by the Florida legislature – including the power to tax (blackmail) land owners.
St. Johns considered Knootz’s proposal and offered a proposal of their own. In order to develop his property, Knootz would have to agree to 1) reduce the size of his development to only one acre and deed the balance of his land to the district or, 2) develop the 3.7 acres, deed the balance of his property to the district and agree to hire contractors to make improvements to 50 acres of district owned wetlands.
Koontz believed these demands to be “excessive” and refusing to be blackmailed, sued in the Florida state courts. Two state courts ruled in Koontz’s favor but the Florida State Supreme Court reversed the lower courts decision.
The U.S. Supreme Court reversed the Florida Supreme Court – relying on two prior cases which in 1987 and 1994 set up important protections against the misuse of power by local governments.
The Court held that no unit of government can “condition” the approval of a land use permit on the owner’s relinquishment of a portion of his property unless there is a “nexus and rough proportionality” between the government’s demand and the effects of the proposed land use.
During the hearing, St. Johns tried to claim that they weren’t forcing Koontz to surrender an interest in his land – he could keep all of his property, he just couldn’t develop any of it. But, if he wanted to develop any portion of the property, he could simply do as they demanded and sign over his interest in the land. Most of us would call this extortion, and the Court did.
As a matter of fact, the term “extortion” was used numerous times throughout the Supreme Court’s opinion. It is clear and bears emphasis that the Supreme Court is protecting property rights. This issue, even though seemingly guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution, is ignored by many government bodies.
“Each of us has a natural right, from God, to defend his person, his liberty and his property.” Frederic Bastiat