A case has developed in Wisconsin against a governmental ruling barring a family from using, selling or being reimbursed for a valuable lakefront property.
And it’s headed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The case, brought by the Pacific Legal Foundation on behalf of the Murr family, argues there are specific situations in which the government is allowed to obtain private property, but must pay up.
In this case, the legal team explains, the government has done the taking without paying.
Donna Murr and her siblings, Joseph Murr, Michael Murr and Peggy Heaver are suing.
“They have been barred from developing a vacant lot they own along the St. Croix River … and a state appellate court said they weren’t entitled to Fifth Amendment takings compensation,” the legal firm said.
“Because they also own a neighboring lot with a recreational cabin on it,” PLF said.
In short, because the family members own a lot with a cabin, they don’t get any compensation for newly imposed rules that forbid them from developing an adjacent lot that is vacant.
PLF said the timeline started in 1960, when the Murrs’ parents bought a waterfront lot on the St. Croix and built a family cabin. Later, they bought an adjacent lot for investment.
Then, in the mid-1970s, new land use regulations were imposed reducing the area of land that could be used. The land would have been grandfathered for development because it was subdivided earlier, but the state has a rule that considers all lots under the same ownership as one lot.
So the fact that building now is banned on the second lot, on which the family has paid taxes for decades, means nothing because they also own the adjacent lot and there’s a cabin there, PLF said.
If someone else owned the second parcel, it could be built on or sold, but the state said the family’s ownership of both lots mean they only really have one.
“The ruling … offends the letter and spirit of the Constitution’s ban on uncompensated takings, by allowing government to deprive people of the use of their land simply because they happen to own another lot next to it,” said PLF attorney John Groen.
“One of the reasons the Supreme Court should take this case is that the Murrs aren’t alone in confronting this issue. The problem of bureaucrats and courts defining the parcel as a whole to include adjoining lots in common ownership presents itself throughout the country. It arises in multiple contexts, from agricultural operations concerning multiple separate tracts, to the typical American family such as the Murrs.”
Donna Murr said she and her siblings “see this case as taking a stand for constitutional property rights, not just for ourselves, but for everyone.”
The petition to the Supreme Court asks for the Wisconsin decision to be reversed.
“This case offers the Supreme Court an opportunity to address one of the major recurrent issues in property law, called the ‘relevant parcel’ question,” said Groen. “The Fifth Amendment’s Takings Clause requires compensation when government prohibits all economic use of private property. The Supreme Court has previously stated that courts must consider the ‘parcel as a whole.’ The ‘relevant parcel’ question asks: What is the whole parcel?
“In the Murrs’ case, the government argues that the whole parcel is both of their lots,” Groen continued. “Can government forbid the use of a separately created, legally distinct residential lot, and get away with paying no compensation, just because the adjoining lot is already developed and happens to be owned by the same family? We don’t believe government should be allowed to evade the Fifth Amendment’s Takings Clause this way. We are asking the Supreme Court to weigh in and affirm that government can’t cut off landowners’ constitutional rights based on how much land they own.”
The petition says: “When Lot E was created in 1959, and purchased in 1963, it was of sufficient size, width, and zoning to allow development of a single family house. Indeed, that is the use allowed for all the parcels within the St. Croix subdivision. However, because of the restrictions that came into place in 1975, the parcel was now defined as ‘substandard.’
“Despite being defined as substandard, Lot E would still be allowed to be developed if it was owned by anyone other than the Murr siblings. Under the ordinance, a grandfather clause provides that any lot created prior to January 1, 1976, as was Lot E, may still be developed as a single family residence but only if the lot ‘is in separate ownership from abutting lands.’ Of course, the Murrs own the abutting parcel, Lot F.
“Because the Murrs own both parcels, this grandfather exception does not apply to them.”
The petition also states the ordinance “precludes the Murrs from selling Lot E to anyone else unless it is combined with Lot F.”
But no damages are due for the government’s rescission of development permission, the petition explains, because “the Wisconsin appellate court ruled that because the two lots are contiguous, and happen to be owned by the same people, this court’s ‘parcel as a whole’ rule … requires combing the two parcels for takings analysis.”