Supreme Court rules against Wisconsin family in property rights case


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Attorney John Groen makes his legal case for the Murr family.

The court upheld a state court decision against the Murr family's claims that the county of St. Croix illegally blocked them from either developing or selling the approximately 1-acre plot of land.

The family claimed the rules essentially stripped the land of its value and asked the government for compensation. Courts must strive for consistency with the central objective of the Takings Clause: to "bar Government from forcing some people alone to bear public burdens which, in all fairness and justice, should be borne by the public as a whole.". Without the ability to sell or develop the lot, it had been rendered economically useless, they said.

The ruling set out a multi-factor test for courts to use to determine when a property taking requiring compensation to an owner has occurred, weighing how land is divided, its physical relationship to the surrounding environment, and the value of the land. Roberts wrote. "Whether a regulation effects a taking of that property is a separate question, one in which common ownership of adjacent property may be taken into account".

The family sued, arguing that the regulation violated the Fifth Amendment, which prohibits the government from taking private property for public use without just compensation. The regulations barred building on any lot smaller than one acre of land. The lots were later transferred to his children in the 1990s.

The regulation prevented the sale because the adjacent lot didn't meet size requirements. 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.

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One result of this case: the Murrs who used to believe government was there to serve the people now believe in their case, government just served itself and ripped them off. 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.

Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the opinion for the court, joined by justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. "It is our hope that property owners across the country will learn from our experience and not take their property rights for granted".

"This is an unfortunate decision for the Murrs, and all property owners", said John Groen, PLF's Executive Vice President and General Counsel.

Ellen Denzer, community development director for St. Croix County, praised the ruling.

"The Murrs can still make good use of both lots, and that the ordinance is a commonplace tool to preserve scenic areas, such as the Lower St. Croix River, for the benefit of landowners and the public alike". The Supreme Court's newest member, Justice Neil Gorsuch, did not participate in the case.

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