Supreme Court rules against Wisconsin family in land dispute case

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MILWAUKEE – The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the state of Wisconsin in a closely watched property rights case, in which the Murr family claimed the state took a parcel of their vacant land along the St. Croix River and did not provide them with just compensation.

The dispute arose after the Murr family set out to sell the vacant lot to finance an upgrade to a cottage their parents built decades ago, only to find out they were blocked by strict shoreline development and conservation rules that rendered the adjacent lot largely worthless.

The Hill reports:

State and local regulations prevent the use or sale of adjacent lots under common ownership along the river as separate building sites unless they have at least one acre of land suitable for development.

The family filed a lawsuit against the state, arguing the regulation violated the Fifth Amendment, which prohibits the government from taking private property for public use without just compensation.

Both St. Croix County and Wisconsin claim the family’s two adjacent parcels of land, when combined, would accommodate a single modern home, and so they have not really lost any value.

The state Court of Appeals court issued its decision in Murr v. Wisconsin, ruling that the state court was correct to treat the family’s property as a single parcel of land.

Justice Anthony Kennedy announced that a violation of the Fifth Amendment had not occurred, nor had the family been deprived of all economic benefit of their property, citing the family’s property still retained plenty of value and they could “use the property for residential purposes, including an enhanced, larger residential improvement.”

Kennedy also wrote that both lots had merged into one when they transferred from the plaintiffs’ parents to their children in 1990s, long after the development regulations had been implemented, reports USA Today.

Justices Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and Sonia Sotomayor joined Kennedy in the majority opinion, while conservative justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito joined Chief Justice John Roberts’ dissent. Justice Neil Gorsuch, the Supreme Court’s junior justice, did not take part in deciding the case.

[Chief Justice John Roberts later issued a statement] that he disagreed with the majority’s conclusion that courts can consider the physical characteristics of the land, the prospective value of the regulated land and the reasonable expectations of the owner in deciding the extent of private property.

“I would stick with our original approach: State law defines the boundaries of distinct parcels of land and those boundaries should determine the ‘private property’ at issue in regulatory takings cases,” Roberts said.

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