Supreme Court rules against Wisconsin family in property rights case

The Supreme Court sided with the state of Wisconsin Friday in a land dispute case with a family.

The family, the Murrs, claimed the state took a parcel of land they owned next to their cabin along the St. Croix River through regulations and did not provide them just compensation.

The Murrs wanted to sell the lot next to their cabin but were denied a county land variance to separately use or sell their two adjoining lots.

State and local regulations prevent the use or sale of adjacent lots under common ownership along the river as separate building sites unless they have at least one acre of land suitable for development.

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 state Court of Appeals ultimately ruled in favor of Wisconsin. The appeals court said the local ordinances effectively merged the two lots, meaning the family could only sell or build on the combined property.

In a 5-3 ruling, the court said the state court ruling was correct to treat the family’s property as a single unit.

In delivering the opinion of the court, Justice Anthony Kennedy said the family had not been deprived of all economically beneficial use of their property.

“They can use the property for residential purposes, including an enhanced, larger residential improvement,” he said.

Chief Justice John Roberts issued a dissenting opinion that Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito joined.

Roberts said he disagreed with the majority’s conclusion that courts can consider the physical characteristics of the land, the prospective value of the regulated land and the reasonable expectations of the owner in deciding the extent of private property. 

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“I would stick with our original approach: State law defines the boundaries of distinct parcels of land and those boundaries should determine the ‘private property’ at issue in regulatory takings cases,” he said.

Justice Neil Gorsuch, the Supreme Court’s newest member, took no part in considering or deciding the case.