The U.S. Supreme Court recently heard oral argument a property owner’s claim that the denial of a permit to develop his land constituted an unconstitutional taking of his property. The Court seemed skeptical of the claim. As the National Law Journal reported, Justice Antonin Scalia asked the landowner’s counsel, "What has been taken?" This case, Koontz v. St. Johns River Management District, is being closely watched by property rights advocates, environmentalists and government officials. It could have a major impact on the ability of government agencies to attach conditions to land development permits.

In this case, the state designated all but a small portion of the property as protected wetlands and uplands. Koontz needed to obtain permits to develop his land. His requests were rejected and the government made numerous suggestion of ways to mitigate the loss of wetlands. Koontz rejected the suggestions and declined to negotiate further. His permit applications were formally denied.

Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg also were skeptical of the property owner’s claim. Breyer said the analysis should be whether this was a form of regulatory taking that would fall under the court’s 1978 takings precedent, Penn Central Transportation Co. v. New York City. "So we simply look to see if [the regulation] went too far. The lower courts could do that."

According to the National Law Journal, Deputy Solicitor General Edwin Kneedler told the Justices that extending the law to permit denials would be a "radical change." He explained, "It is standard procedure when someone applies for a permit from the government, it is the permit applicant’s burden to establish that he complies with the regulatory program. [Prior cases] shift that burden to the government. That has never been the case under regulation, including land use regulation."

Eminent domain experts will be anxious to see the Court’s ruling and opinion. The opinion is an opportunity for the Court to also delve into tangential issues not necessarily fully at issue in the case.