One of the core principles of libertarian thought is the concept of “private property.” Libertarians, and Classical Liberals; like John Locke, Thomas Paine, and Thomas Jefferson all believed in an individual’s right to own property. Last week, in a 5-3 ruling, the Supreme Court ruled that bureaucrats don’t have to compensate property owners for imposed regulations that destroy the value of your property.
At issue were two islands along the St. Croix River in Troy, Wisconsin. The petitioner, Donna Murr, tried to sell one of the islands she owned in 2004, only to be blocked by local, state, and federal ordinances enacted under the “Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1976.” In writing the court’s majority opinion, Justice Kennedy outlined the regulations preventing the sale.
“Under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, the river was designated, by 1972, for federal protection. §3(a)(6), 82 Stat. 908, 16 U. S. C. §1274(a)(6) (designating Upper St. Croix River); Lower Saint Croix River Act of 1972, §2, 86 Stat. 1174, 16 U. S. C. §1274(a)(9) (adding Lower St. Croix River). The law required the States of Wisconsin and Minnesota to develop “a management and development program” for the river area. 41 Fed. Reg. 26237 (1976). In compliance, Wisconsin authorized the State Department of Natural Resources to promulgate rules limiting development in order to “guarantee the protection of the wild, scenic and recreational qualities of the river for present and future generations.” Wis. Stat. §30.27(l) (1973). “
“For the area where petitioners’ property is located, the Wisconsin rules prevent the use of lots as separate building sites unless they have at least one acre of land suitable for development. Wis. Admin. Code §§ NR 118.04(4), 118.03(27), 118.06(1)(a)(2)(a), 118.06(1)(b) (2017). A grandfather clause relaxes this restriction for substandard lots which were “in separate ownership from abutting lands” on January 1, 1976, the effective date of the regulation. § NR 118.08(4)(a)(1). The clause permits the use of qualifying lots as separate building sites. The rules also include a merger provision, however, which provides that adjacent lots under common ownership may not be “sold or developed as separate lots” if they do not meet the size requirement. § NR 118.08(4)(a)(2). The Wisconsin rules require localities to adopt parallel provisions, see § NR 118.02(3), so the St. Croix County zoning ordinance contains identical restrictions, see St. Croix County, Wis., Ordinance §17.36I.4.a (2005). The Wisconsin rules also authorize the local zoning authority to grant variances from the regulations where enforcement would create “unnecessary hardship.” § NR 118.09(4)(b); St. Croix County Ordinance §17.09.232. “
The two adjacent islands are both 1.25 acres, one of them has a small cabin and a dock, which the Murr family had intended to keep, the other island was completely vacant. Since the “Wild and Scenic River Act” forced states to impose regulations protecting the river, the Murr’s two islands were required to be regulated as one piece of property, as opposed to each island being considered its own individual piece of property. This means that the Murr’s cannot sell just one island. Upon realizing this, the Murr family approached St. Croix County seeking compensation.
They were right in seeking compensation, the fifth amendment has a provision in it called “The Takings Clause” which states:
“private property [shall not] be taken for public use, without just compensation.”
The Murr’s contend that the imposed regulations have effectively “taken” their private property for “public use.” Therefore they approached St. Croix County requesting that they be compensated $400,000, which is what the property had been appraised at, for their trouble. The county responded with an offer of $40,000, which the Murr’s contend is not “just compensation.”
In his scathing dissent, Chief Justice John Roberts fears that the ruling could have a negative effect on property rights going forward.
“Put simply, today’s decision knocks the definition of ‘private property’ loose from its foundation on stable state law rules.”
His dissent centers around the how the majority’s decision adds a layer of uncertainty to private property rights, alluding to the fact that last week’s opinion may give the government more leeway in taking private property in the future.