Posted on May 16, 2014 by Margaret (Peggy) N. Strand
In 2012 and 2013, the Supreme Court issued several decisions recognizing claims for regulatory takings that observers believed might indicate a shift toward greater protection of private property rights. In Arkansas Game and Fish Comm’n v. United States, 568 U.S. ___ (No. 11-597, Dec. 4, 2012), the Supreme Court upheld a claim for a temporary taking based on flooding associated with a Corps of Engineers project, discussed here. And in Horne v. Department of Agriculture, 569 U.S. ___ (No. 12-123, June 10, 2013), under very unusual circumstances, the Supreme Court allowed the takings claim to be presented as a defense to government regulatory action. The 2013 decision in Koontz v. St. Johns River Water Management District, 570 U.S. ___ (No. 11-1447, June 25, 2013), concerned mitigation requirements associated with land development in Florida, discussed here and here. Shift in judicial approach to greater protection of property rights? Maybe not.
During the same time period, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit held that a landowner could not claim a taking arising out of denial by the Corps of an application for approval of a wetland mitigation bank. Hearts Bluff Game Ranch, Inc. v. United States, 669 F.3d 1326 (Fed. Cir. 2012). This lesser-known decision addresses a fundamental aspect of takings law — what is the property interest that is protected by the takings clause? Apparently it matters whether you have a permit denial (and can seek compensation) or a denial of a government approval of a benefit (which confers no compensable property right).
A wetlands mitigation bank is a property where wetlands have been enhanced or restored or otherwise improved. The mitigation bank credits generated by those efforts are available as compensatory mitigation for impacts authorized under Corps permits issued under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act. Unlike dredge or fill of wetlands or streams that require a Section 404 permit, the mitigation bank is not approved by permit. Rather, under regulations, the mitigation bank is reviewed by the Corps, EPA and other federal and state agencies, known as the Interagency Review Team (IRT). Subject to IRT review, the Corps and the mitigation banker sign a Mitigation Banking Instrument (MBI) that approves the mitigation bank. The MBI contains terms such as the size and nature of the wetland enhancement or restoration that will occur on the bank property. The MBI also establishes the credits for the bank, i.e., the marketable element that can be sold to a wetland permit applicant who needs to provide compensatory mitigation.
Despite this seemingly complicated process, the situation can be simplified in this way: Mr. Black, owner of Blackacre, wants to fill wetlands on his property to build homes. Mr. Black must obtain a Section 404 permit from the Corps and likely will need mitigation to offset what he fills. Ms. White, owner of Whiteacre, wants to restore and enhance wetlands on her property, and use that enhancement as a basis to offer credits for wetland compensation to those who need to mitigate their impacts to wetlands, like Mr. Black. Ms. White needs to go through the mitigation banking regulatory process for her approvals. Her MBI will authorize the planned “ecological development” of her property.
Comparing the Hearts Bluff decision to more standard regulatory takings law, if Mr. Black’s application for a permit is denied, he may be able to sue the United States for compensation for the taking of his property. If Ms. White’s application for approval of the mitigation bank is denied, the Federal Circuit says she has no compensable property interest.
Hearts Bluff sought approval for a 4000 acre mitigation bank in Texas. The land was located where the planned Marvin Nichols Reservoir might be sited, a proposed reservoir that has a long history in Texas. Hearts Bluff also sued in state court. After consulting with the state and evaluating the potential site, the Corps denied the application for mitigation bank approval, citing reasons that do not appear in the takings decisions.
Any regulatory takings claim faces a number of hurdles. What is unusual about Hearts Bluff is that the court held that the company had no “cognizable property interest.”
The Federal Circuit focused on its two-part test for evaluating takings claims. “First, as a threshold matter, the court determines whether the claimant has identified a cognizable Fifth Amendment property interest that is asserted to be the subject of the taking. . . .Second, if the court concludes that a cognizable property interest exists, it determines whether that property interest was ‘taken.’” Id. at 1329. The court stopped at step one, finding that there was no property interest.
The court adopted the government’s position that Hearts Bluff “was never entitled to operate a mitigation bank solely by virtue of its ownership of the land and that it did not have a property right in access to the mitigation banking program because the program is entirely a creature of the government and subject to pervasive and discretionary government control.” Id. at 1330. The mitigation banking program, said the court, “is run exclusively by the Corps, subject to its pervasive control, and no landowner can develop a mitigation bank absent Corps approval. Mitigation banking in its entirety would not exist without the enabling government regulations. Under our precedent, therefore, the Corps’ discretionary denial of access into the Corps program cannot be a cognizable property interest.” Id. at 1331.
The court relied on precedent where the claimant owned property but not the particular right to use the property as it asserted. For example, in Air Pegasus of D.C., Inc. v. United States, 424 F.3d 1206 (Fed. Cir. 2005), the court had held that a helicopter operator had no takings claim when a federal “flight restriction” essentially destroyed its business. There are not many cases in this area, and many of them deal with personal property, rather than real property. These decisions do not turn on the distinction between a government permit and a government benefit, but rather delve into whether the claimant’s property carried with it the right to pursue the particular “end goal.”
In short, while Hearts Bluff certainly owned the real property, its ability to “develop” it as a mitigation bank was not a “right” that could be taken by the Corps’ denial of its application. It was not such a right because the government essentially created the end use (mitigation banking).
It’s been a long time since my law school days, but the “bundle of sticks” that I was taught constitute real property rights should include the right to seek governmental approval for the owner’s preferred uses, regardless of whether the government program is new, old, established by regulations, or described in a statute. The government does not always commit a taking by denying such uses, but it is troubling that property rights should depend on which government program is involved.