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Supreme Court Justices rule against Wisconsin family in property rights case

Cherry blossom trees bloom on the grounds of the U.S. Supreme Court.

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Friday ruled against a Wisconsin family in a property rights case that makes it easier for government officials to restrict development in environmentally sensitive areas.

The 5-3 ruling involved the family’s effort to sell part of its land along the St. Croix River. They planned to use the proceeds from an empty lot to pay for improvements on a cabin that sits on adjacent land.

County officials had barred the sale because conservation rules treat the two lots as a single property that can’t be divided.

The family claimed those rules essentially stripped the land of its value and asked the government for compensation. The government argued that it’s fair to view the property as a whole and said the family is owed nothing.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, joining the court’s liberal members, called the government’s action “a reasonable land-use regulation” meant to preserve the river and surrounding land. He said the property as a whole remains valuable and the family could not claim they expected to sell or develop the lots separately given regulations that existed before they acquired the lots.

In dissent, Chief Justice John Roberts said the majority had undermined the Constitution’s protections for private property owners. He said the court should have relied on state property lines to define the relevant parcel of land rather than consider outside factors.

The case was closely watched by property rights and business groups that say it should be easier for landowners to get compensation when government regulations restrict land use. More than 100 cities and counties across the U.S. have similar “merger” restrictions that treat two adjacent properties as one if they have the same owner.

At issue is the constitutional requirement that private property can’t be taken for public use “without just compensation.”

The dispute began when four siblings from the Murr family tried to sell the vacant lot in 2004 to pay for improvements on a rustic cabin that sits on the plot next door. Their father had purchased the two 1.25-acre lots separately in the 1960s and both parcels had been taxed separately. The lots were later transferred to his children in the 1990s.

County officials blocked the sale, citing 1976 regulations that bar new construction on lots in the area to prevent overcrowding and pollution. A “grandfather” clause exempted existing owners, but the county said it didn’t apply to the Murrs’ empty lot alone since it was connected to the family’s other land.

The Murrs wanted the government to pay what the vacant property is worth — it was assessed at $400,000 — since the regulations prevented them from building on it. A Wisconsin appeals court sided with the county, saying zoning rules did not take away the property’s value because the Murrs could still use both lots as a vacation property or sell them as a whole.