Environmental Protection

Supreme Court ruling unsettles water management district’s wetlands rule

By Steve Patterson


Rules that the St. Johns River Water Management District used to protect wetlands from development interfered with a Central Florida landowner’s constitutional rights, the U.S. Supreme Court said Tuesday.


The ruling could shift standards nationally about how governments can regulate development, and it was cheered by property-rights advocates.


“The ruling is a powerful victory for everybody’s constitutional property rights, from coast to coast,” said Paul J. Beard II, a Pacific Legal Foundation attorney who represented the owner of a 14-acre site in Orange County whose family has fought the management district in court for almost 20 years.


Critics worried the ruling could lead to a series of other protections being challenged in court.


The ruling represents “judicial activism at its worst,” said Doug Kendall, a lawyer and president of the nonprofit Constitutional Accountability Center, which had filed arguments to the court on behalf of groups including the American Planning Association.


“It will harm both property owners and state and local officials by injecting judges into the land-use planning process,” Kendall argued in a written reaction, “making it more difficult for state and local officials to strike an appropriate balance between protecting the environment and promoting development.”


The ruling by a five-member bloc of justices reversed a decision the Florida Supreme Court made in 2011 and ordered the state to re-examine issues raised by landowner Coy Koontz Jr., whose family has owned land along Florida 50 since 1972.


Part of that area was wetlands that were part of a special protected zone around the Econlockhatchee River.


When Koontz’s father sought to develop 3.7 acres as commercial land beside the highway in 1994, the district asked for a conservation easement on the rest of the family’s land, to which he agreed. It also wanted him to pay for environmental work done elsewhere, which he refused.


The district said it had to ask for off-site work, because state rules required creating 10 acres of wetlands for every wetland acre that would be filled in.


The ruling written by Justice Samuel Alito said the state rules could amount to a “taking” of the Koontz land that violates the U.S. Constitution’s Fifth Amendment, which protects private property from being seized for public use without compensation.


The district’s argument “rests on a mistaken premise,” the ruling said.


The dissenting justices saw the issue very differently.


“No taking occurred in this case because … no property changed hands,” Justice Elena Kagan argued in a dissent three others joined.


Kagan warned the case “threatens to subject a vast array of land-use regulations applied daily in states and localities throughout the country” to new scrutiny.


“I would not embark on so unwise an adventure,” she added.

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