Posted on March 7, 2018 by Mary K. Ryan
One benefit of preparing an annual review of last year’s important cases, as I just did for MCLE, is that you may have missed a significant case when it came out. That’s why I’m writing now about Murr v. Wisconsin, 137 S. Ct. 1645, decided on June 5, 2017. Murr, which incorporates the mathematical conundrum in the title, expands the Supreme Court’s regulatory takings jurisprudence by asking a preliminary question—what parcel or parcels of land are at issue? The Court held that this question must be answered before reaching the ad hoc case-by-case analysis established by Penn Central Transportation Co. v. New York City, Lucas v. South Carolina Coastal Council, and Palazzolo v. Rhode Island which examines the economic impact of the challenged regulation, the investment-backed expectations of the landowner, and the character of the government action.
Murr involved the owners of two adjacent waterfront properties on the St. Croix River in Wisconsin which, given their location, were subject to numerous regulations, including a one acre buildable lot requirement. The properties lost their original grandfathered protection from that regulation when they were put into common ownership. The county denied requests for variances and the owners filed a regulatory takings claim, which they lost at the state level.
In a 5-3 opinion written by Justice Kennedy, the Court developed a new, three-factor test for determining the “denominator” in the regulatory takings analysis—in other words, the unit of property against which a court must assess the effects of the challenged governmental action. First, courts must assess the treatment of the land under state and local law, in particular how state law bounds and divides the land. Second, courts must look at the physical characteristics of the landowner’s property, e.g., whether the land is subject to further environmental or land use regulations due to the nature of the land or adjacent natural resources. Third, courts must consider the value of the property under the challenged regulation. Under this test, there was no regulatory taking. The Court rejected the bright line tests offered by the state (state law controls) and the landowners (lot lines define the relevant parcel) as too easily subject to manipulation. The Court defined the relevant parcel as a single combined lot based on several factors: (1) that merger as a result of common ownership is a reasonable and usual zoning and land use control and there was a voluntary merger; (2) riverside property is often subject to restrictions on development; and (3) treatment as one lot did not substantially diminish the value of the land without the regulation.
Murr may be an example where the “no harm, no foul” rule led to the right result. But generally speaking, the government’s defenses just got better, and the landowner’s burden tougher, in regulatory takings cases. And while there were three dissenters (Justice Gorsuch did not participate in the case), without two more votes, Murr will be the law for the foreseeable future.