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Wetlands - Concern Over Property Rights

land lucas compensation south

The dispute over wetlands regulation reflects the nation's ambivalence when private property and public rights intersect, especially since three-fourths of the nation's wetlands are owned by private citizens. In recent years, many landowners have complained that wetland regulation devalued their property by blocking its development. They have argued that efforts to preserve the wetlands have gone too far, citing instances where a small wetland precludes the use of large tracts of land. Many people believe that this constitutes taking without just compensation.

The "takings" clause of the Constitution provides that when private property is taken for public use, just compensation must be paid to the owner. Wetland owners claim that when the government, through its laws, eliminates some uses for their land, the value is decreased, and they believe that they should be paid for the loss.

While some people believe that wetland protection should take priority over property concerns, a significant portion of the public is troubled over what it sees as growing government infringement on the rights of property owners. They believe that just as landowners must be compensated for property seized by eminent domain (the authority of the government to take private property for public use, with compensation to the owner), so should the losses (devaluation of wetland acreage) be compensated, even though no physical taking of property occurs.

State Must Reimburse an Owner for Loss

In the 1970s and 1980s, state courts and the lower federal courts frequently handed down contradictory rulings on the issue of compensation for wetland-related takings. In 1992 the U.S. Supreme Court, in Lucas v. South Carolina Coastal Council (60 LW 4842), resolved the issue of compensation when land taken for an accepted public good loses significant value.

David Lucas, a homebuilder, bought two residential lots on a South Carolina barrier island in 1986. He planned to build and sell two single-family houses similar to those on nearby lots. At the time he purchased the land, state law allowed house construction on the lots. In 1988 South Carolina passed the Beachfront Management Act to protect the state's beaches from erosion. Lucas's land fell within the area considered in danger of erosion; as a result, Lucas could no longer build the houses.

Lucas went to court, claiming that the Beachfront Management Act had taken his property without just compensation because it no longer had any value if he could not build there. Lucas did not question the right of the State of South Carolina to take his property for the common good. Rather, he claimed the state had to compensate him for the financial loss that resulted from the devaluing of the property.

On June 29, 1992, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a seven-to-two decision, agreed:

There are good reasons for our frequently expressed belief that when the owner of real property has been called upon to sacrifice all economically beneficial uses in the name of the common good, that is, to leave his property economically idle, he has suffered a taking.… When…a regulation…declares "off-limits" all economically productive or beneficial use of land … compensation must be paid.

The Supreme Court said that a state could stop a landowner from building on his property only if he was using it for a "harmful or noxious" purpose—for example, building a brickyard or a brewery in a residential area. This was not the case. Lucas had planned to build homes, a legitimate purpose that was neither harmful nor noxious. Although it was possible to define the planned buildings as harmful to South Carolina's ecological resources, this would not be consistent with earlier Court interpretations of "harmful." Only by showing that Lucas had intended to do something "harmful or noxious" with the land could the state take his land without compensation. This they did not do, and, therefore, they owed him the money.

Wetlands - Loss In Wetland Acreage [next] [back] Wetlands - History Of Wetlands Use

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