Commentary: SCOTUS to Hear Appeal of Florida Supreme Courts Bad Call
Floridians Property Rights May Get a Reprieve
When it had a chance to uphold property rights, the Florida Supreme Court got it wrong. Will the U.S. Supreme Court now get it right? The question arose last Friday when the nations highest court during the first week of its 2012-13 term — agreed to hear an appeal of the Florida courts misguided decision.
Sadly, this case is also a reminder of the old saying, Justice delayed is justice denied. That legal maxim has a special poignancy in this case because the plaintiff who sought justice Coy Koontz, Sr. died in 2000, while this case was still creeping through the courts.
Fortunately, his heirs were determined to continue the fight against this injustice, and the Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF), whose work on behalf of property rights was described in The James Madison Institutes summer Journal, never gave up. (Read more about it here).
In a statement released on the day the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the appeal, the PLF and its principal attorney, Paul J. Beard, filled in some of the relevant history of this disturbing example of government bullying:
Property owners large and small, from coast to coast, should be thankful that the U.S. Supreme Court has accepted this important property rights case. If the Koontz family can be hit with the government rip-off that happened in this case, then everybodys property rights are put at risk.
The Koontz family merely wanted to exercise their rights as property owners, to develop the familys land in legal and responsible ways. But regulators saw a chance to pounce and make all kinds of costly, unrelated, outrageous demands.
Without any justification, the government demanded money, labor, and resources as the price for allowing the Koontzes to use their own land. This was a flat-out shakedown, a form of extortion. And government shakedowns of property owners arent just wrong; theyre unconstitutional .
For years, the father of PLFs client, the late Coy Koontz, Sr., sought to develop the vacant, commercially zoned land that he owned in Orange County. But the St. Johns River Water Management District refused to issue any of the necessary permits because Koontz would not agree to costly and unjustified conditions that the District imposed as the price of getting a permit.
Specifically, the District demanded that Koontz dedicate his money and labor to make improvements to 50 acres of District-owned property located miles away from the proposed project.
The demand that Mr. Koontz spend his resources improving government-owned property, miles away from his own land, bore no connection to the development project that he proposed. In other words, what we have here is a classic case of an unconstitutional shakedown .
Officially, most of the 3.7 acres that Mr. Koontz sought to develop lay within a habitat protection zone, and was classified as wetlands subject to District jurisdiction. But the property had actually been seriously degraded, and made unfit for animal habitat, because of development on adjacent land owned by others, including government land.
Nevertheless, Mr. Koontz offered to mitigate for the proposed disturbance of wetlands by dedicating 11 acres of his own land in the vicinity (nearly 80 percent of his property in the area) to the state for conservation.
But the District was not satisfied with this offer. Instead, it demanded that Mr. Koontz replace culverts and plug ditches on some of the Districts own property located up to seven miles away. Cost estimates for the off-site work ranged from $10,000 (the Districts estimate) to between $90,000 and $150,000 (Koontzs experts estimate) .
Mr. Koontz refused the Districts unreasonable demand. Because of his refusal to comply, the District denied his permit applications outright.
The Koontz family sued in state court, arguing that their Fifth Amendment rights had been violated, and they won at the trial and appellate levels. After the District issued the necessary permits without the off-site mitigation condition, Mr. Koontz was awarded damages for the period of time during which the District unlawfully withheld permits.
However, the Florida Supreme Court then ruled for the District, refusing to recognize that the District had imposed an unconstitutional taking. Coy Koontz, Sr., died before he could see his property developed, and his son took over his legal battle.
The justices of the U.S. Supreme Court would not need to be spending their time on this case if the Florida Supreme Court had not overruled the trial judges and appellate judges serving in Floridas lower courts.
This blown call is a reminder that in the classic sculpture where a human form represents justice, she is blindfolded. The intent is to symbolize impartiality. In this case, however, it may well represent the Florida Supreme Court majoritys inability or unwillingness to consider the solid arguments or the abundant evidence staring them in the face.
(To learn more about the the Pacific Legal Foundations work in defense of property rights, go to the PLF website, www.pacificlegal.org.)