Written by Tom Steward | June 24, 2017

Property Rights Activists Slam Supreme Court Decision on St. Croix River

CabinProperty rights activists are slamming a U.S. Supreme Court case involving land along the St. Croix River near the Twin Cities that strengthens the hand of government environmental regulators nationwide.  They say the precedent-setting decision against landowners on the Wisconsin side of the St. Croix River in Wisconsin undercuts individual property rights across the country.

The case involved a family that wanted to sell one of two lots on the river bluff in order to finance improvements on a cabin on the other lot in a case covered in the Twin Cities media for years.  The lot in question was assessed $400,000. Justice Anthony Kennedy joined the court’s liberal wing in siding with county regulators in preventing the family from breaking up the parcel along the nationally protected Wild and Scenic River.

Donna Murr, one of the four siblings who brought the case forward, said the family was disappointed.

“It is our hope that property owners across the country will learn from our experience and not take their property rights for granted,” she said.

Although the buildable land in dispute covers less than one acre, the case of Murr vs. Wisconsin and St. Croix County quickly hit the national stage because of similar conflicts in other states.

The Murrs and their attorneys had alleged overregulation of personal property, arguing that because governments can view two contiguous parcels as a “parcel of the whole,” property owners are denied compensation for one of them.

The Murr family has been fighting local zoning officials for the right to sell off the property for more than a decade.  A nationally acclaimed legal firm that specializes in property rights litigation–the Pacific Legal Foundation–represented the Murrs in what amounts to a significant setback the view of  property rights activists.

…St. Croix County said that granting the Murrs an exception to laws protecting the St. Croix River would weaken the government’s ability to guard against overdevelopment anywhere on the river.

Remzy Bitar, an attorney representing St. Croix County, said Friday that county officials were pleased with the “clean and important win” and said the high court ruling left no significant issues unaddressed.

The ruling balances land-use decisions with safeguarding of “the nationally treasured scenic riverway,” he said.

Once again, Justice Kennedy provided the swing vote in a case that was argued before Justice Gorsuch joined the bench.

Writing for the court majority, Kennedy said that the Murrs had not suffered a regulatory taking of their property and “have not been deprived of all economically beneficial use of their property.”

In dissent, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the court majority had undermined the Constitution’s protections for private property owners. Roberts said the court should have relied on state property lines to define the relevant parcel of land rather than consider outside factors.

Tom Steward

Tom Steward is a Government Accountability Reporter at Center of the American Experiment.
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