Published January 15, 2013
A land battle that has been raging for nearly two decades landed Tuesday at the Supreme Court, which will decide whether the government went too far in regulating a development in Florida.
Coy Koontz in the 1970s bought a parcel of land, the majority of which later was classified a wetland. When he sought a permit to develop a portion of it in the 1990s, the Florida agency in charge of the area said Koontz would need to take steps to remediate the damage he would cause.
Koontz offered to give the agency 11 of the 15 acres, in exchange for a permit to develop the remaining land. In addition, the state government said he would need to undertake other improvements. Options ranged from numerous changes to the original plot to paying for enhancement of 50 government-owned acres miles away from the Koontz plot.
Though Koontz continued to offer the 11 acres, he refused to go along with the government's other requirements and decided to sue.
On Tuesday, the justices at the Supreme Court considered whether the land dispute amounts to a "taking" -- whether by denying Koontz the opportunity to further develop his land unless he spent thousands to meet government demands, it deprived him of its potential value.
His attorneys called the offer a "government shakedown,” but the government’s lawyers say Koontz simply walked away and refused to negotiate. Koontz has since died, and his son -- Coy Koontz Jr. -- has continued the case.
Though Koontz Jr. and his legal team felt confident following the arguments Tuesday, they had to acknowledge the tough questions from Justice Antonin Scalia. Arguably one of the court's most conservative justices, he seemed unconvinced that the government's actions violated the Fifth Amendment.
"I can't see where there's a taking here," Scalia said, adding, "Nothing's been taken."
But his colleague, Justice Anthony Kennedy, seemed to think the Koontz case is the classic example of an unlawful, unconstitutional taking, asking why the government can "force you, as a condition to using your property to its highest and best use, to pay them money?"
Koontz Jr. says he never considered dropping the fight.
"It is important for anyone to understand that the government can at times be a creeping blob, absorbing your rights, and hopefully this will at least put a halt to that," Koontz Jr. said as he stood on the plaza in front of the Supreme Court.
Supporters of the government's position say it has a vested interest in protecting threatened habitats, and that development comes with a price tag. "The government has to have the ability to make developers pay for the genuine costs development poses," Doug Kendall, president of the Constitutional Accountability Center, said.
Faced with the inability to develop the land, along with a continuing property tax obligation, the Koontz family sold the parcel. The Supreme Court's opinion is expected by June.