Koontz v. St. Johns River Water Management District

U.S. Supreme Court,No. 11-1447, June 25, 2013: Denial of land use permit for refusal of mitigation may be taking.

The following excerpts marked “Headnotes” are from the syllabus or headnotes prepared by the SCOTUS Reporter of Decisions, which are not part of the opinion of the Court. The excerpts marked “Majority Opinion” are from the Court’s opinion (written by Justice Alito, joined by Justices Kennedy, Roberts, Thomas and Scalia), and the excerpts marked “Dissent” are from the dissenting opinion (by Justice Kagan, joined by Justices Ginsburg, Breyer and Sotomayor):


“Koontz sought permits to develop a section of his property from respondent St. Johns River Water Management District (District), which, consistent with Florida law, requires permit applicants wishing to build on wetlands to offset the resulting environmental damage. Koontz offered to mitigate the environmental effects of his development proposal by deeding to the District a conservation easement on nearly three-quarters of his property. The District rejected Koontz’s proposal and informed him that it would approve construction only if he (1) reduced the size of his development and, inter alia, deeded to the District a conservation easement on the resulting larger remainder of his property or (2) hired contractors to make improvements to District-owned wetlands several miles away. Believing the District’s demands to be excessive in light of the environmental effects his proposal would have caused, Koontz filed suit under a state law that provides money damages for agency action that is an ‘unreasonable exercise of the state’s police power constituting a taking without just compensation.’

Majority Opinion: “The District considered the 11-acre conservation easement to be inadequate, and it informed petitioner that it would approve construction only if he agreed to one of two concessions. First, the District proposed that petitioner reduce the size of his development to 1 acre and deed to the District a conservation easement on the remaining 13.9 acres. To reduce the development area, the District suggested that petitioner could eliminate the dry-bed pond from his proposal and instead install a more costly subsurface stormwater management system beneath the building site. The District also suggested that petitioner install retaining walls rather than gradually sloping the land from the building site down to the elevation of the rest of his property to the south.

“In the alternative, the District told petitioner that he could proceed with the development as proposed, building on 3.7 acres and deeding a conservation easement to the government on the remainder of the property, if he also agreed to hire contractors to make improvements to District-owned land several miles away. Specifically, petitioner could pay to replace culverts on one parcel or fill in ditches on another. Either of those projects would have enhanced approximately 50 acres of District-owned wetlands. When the District asks permit applicants to fund offsite mitigation work, its policy is never to require any particular offsite project, and it did not do so here. Instead, the District said that it ‘would also favorably consider’ alternatives to its suggested offsite mitigation projects if petitioner proposed something ‘equivalent.’”


“The trial court found the District’s actions unlawful because they failed the requirements of Nollan v. California Coastal Comm’n, 483 U.S. 825, and Dolan v. City of Tigard, 512 U. S. 374. Those cases held that the government may not 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. …”Headnotes


“1. The government’s demand for property from a land-use permit applicant must satisfy the Nollan/Dolan requirements even when it denies the permit.

“(a) The unconstitutional conditions doctrine vindicates the Constitution’s enumerated rights by preventing the government from coercing people into giving them up, and Nollan and Dolan represent a special application of this doctrine that protects the Fifth Amendment right to just compensation for property the government takes when owners apply for land-use permits. The standard set out in Nollan and Dolan reflects the danger of governmental coercion in this context while accommodating the government’s legitimate need to offset the public costs of development through land use exactions. Dolan, supra, at 391; Nollan, supra, at 837.

“(b) The principles that undergird Nollan and Dolan do not change depending on whether the government approves a permit on the condition that the applicant turn over property or denies a permit because the applicant refuses to do so. …

“(c) … the District errs in arguing that because it gave Koontz another avenue to obtain permit approval, this Court need not decide whether its demand for offsite improvements satisfied Nollan and Dolan. Had Koontz been offered at least one alternative that satisfied Nollan and Dolan, he would not have been subjected to an unconstitutional condition. But the District’s offer to approve a less ambitious project does not obviate the need to apply Nollan and Dolan to the conditions it imposed on its approval of the project Koontz actually proposed.

“2. The government’s demand for property from a land-use permit applicant must satisfy the Nollan/Dolan requirements even when its demand is for money. …”


“The significant legal questions that the Court resolves today are whether Nollan and Dolan also apply when that case is varied in two ways. First, what if the government does not approve the permit, but instead demands that the condition be fulfilled before it will do so? Second, what if the condition entails not transferring real property, but simply paying money? This case also raises other, more fact-specific issues I will address: whether the government here imposed any condition at all, and whether petitioner Coy Koontz suffered any compensable injury.

“I think the Court gets the first question it addresses right. The Nollan-Dolan standard applies not only when the government approves a development permit conditioned on the owner’s conveyance of a property interest (i.e., imposes a condition subsequent), but also when the government denies a permit until the owner meets the condition (i.e., imposes a condition precedent). … When the government grants a permit subject to the relinquishment of real property, and that condition does not satisfy Nollan and Dolan, then the government has taken the property and must pay just compensation under the Fifth Amendment. But when the government denies a permit because an owner has refused to accede to that same demand, nothing has actually been taken. The owner is entitled to have the improper condition removed; and he may be entitled to a monetary remedy created by state law for imposing such a condition; but he cannot be entitled to constitutional compensation for a taking of property. So far, we all agree.

“Our core disagreement concerns the second question the Court addresses. The majority extends Nollan and Dolan to cases in which the government conditions a permit not on the transfer of real property, but instead on the payment or expenditure of money. That runs roughshod over Eastern Enterprises v. Apfel, 524 U. S. 498 (1998), which held that the government may impose ordinary financial obligations without triggering the Takings Clause’s protections. The boundaries of the majority’s new rule are uncertain. But it threatens to subject a vast array of land-use regulations, applied daily in States and localities throughout the country, to heightened constitutional scrutiny. I would not embark on so unwise an adventure, and would affirm the Florida Supreme Court’s decision.

“… Second, no taking occurred in this case because Koontz never acceded to a demand (even had there been one), and so no property changed hands; as just noted, Koontz therefore cannot claim just compensation under the Fifth Amendment. The majority does not take issue with my first conclusion, and affirmatively agrees with my second. But the majority thinks Koontz might still be entitled to money damages, and remands to the Florida Supreme Court on that question.”

Decision available at http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/12pdf/11-1447_4e46.pdf.

Some interesting commentary on this decision can be found at:

A New York Times Op Ed by John D. Echeverria, a professor at Vermont Law School, published June 26, 2013

American Planning Association blog APA Policy News For Planners, “High Court’s Koontz Decision Raises Questions”, by Molly Stuart http://blogs.planning.org/policy/2013/06/26/high-courts-koontz-decision-raises-questions/  (Thanks to Leslie Ratley-Beach for highlighting this blog)

Law of the Land blog, “U.S. Supreme Court Hands Down Koontz Case”
http://lawoftheland.wordpress.com/2013/07/01/u-s-supreme-court-hands-down-koontz-case/, an analysis by Pace Law Professor John R. Nolon

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