Under the doctrine of regulatory takings, a regulation of property that goes “too far” in burdening property rights will be recognized as a Fifth Amendment taking. The Supreme Court’s recent decision in Murr v. Wisconsin (U.S. Supreme Court No. 15-214, June 23, 2017), represents an important step in the evolution of regulatory takings jurisprudence. It addresses the issue of how to define the “proper unit of property” in the regulatory takings analysis, a question often termed “the denominator problem.” In Murr, the Court rejected the notion that a legally defined parcel is necessarily the relevant unit of analysis finding that, under certain circumstances, multiple legal parcels may jointly constitute the relevant unit of property. But the Court avoided adopting a bright-line rule to determine the relevant unit of property and instead adopted a complex, multifactor test to address the denominator problem.
Background of this Case
The property at issue in Murr consisted of two adjacent lots, Lot E and Lot F, in Troy, Wisconsin, owned by two brothers and two sisters, the petitioners in the case. Local regulations prevented these lots from being sold or developed unless there was a minimum of one acre of developable land. A lot merger provision also provided that adjacent lots under common ownership could not be sold or developed as separate lots if they did not meet the size requirement.
The two lots were situated along the St. Croix river, with a steep bluff cutting through the lots limiting the lots’ developable area. Though each lot was approximately 1.25 acres in size, the lots’ combined buildable area was only 0.98 acres due to the terrain.
The petitioners’ parents purchased Lot F in 1960 and built a small cabin on it. Lot F was later transferred to the family plumbing company. In 1963, they purchased neighboring Lot E, which they held in their own names. The lots remained under separate ownership until 1995, when they were transferred to the petitioners.
The petitioners became interested in moving the cabin on Lot F to a different portion of the lot and selling Lot E to fund the project. However, based on the lot merger provision, the local zoning board determined that the lots could not be separately sold or developed.
The petitioners filed an action, alleging that these restrictions amounted to a regulatory taking by effectively depriving them of all or practically all use of Lot E.
The Takings Clause
The Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment provides that property shall not “be taken for public use, without just compensation.” Traditionally, the Takings Clause reached only a direct appropriation or physical occupation of property. The Court’s regulatory takings jurisprudence was initiated by Pennsylvania Coal Co. v. Mahon, 260 U.S. 393, 415 (1922), which declared that “while property may be regulated to a certain extent, if regulation goes too far it will be recognized as a taking.”
Two subsequent Supreme Court decisions provide guidance on application of this principle. In Lucas v. South Carolina Coastal Council, 505 U. S. 1003 (1992), the Court stated that, with certain qualifications, a regulation which “denies all economically beneficial or productive use of land will require compensation under the Takings Clause.” When a regulation impedes the use of property without depriving the owner of all economically beneficial use, a taking may still be found based on multiple factors described in Penn Central Transportation Co. v. New York City, 438 U. S. 104, 124 (1978), which include (1) the economic impact of the regulation; (2) the extent to which the regulation has interfered with distinct investment-backed expectations; and (3) the character of the governmental action.
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