Monday, July 1, 2013
The past few weeks have been exciting ones for Supreme Court opinions. Busily finishing a book chapter, I did not have time to read Koontz carefully until Friday and of course by that time, I also had a stack of blog postings and news articles to peruse as well by then (Note to self: Post earlier next time so I don't have to read everyone else's posts first and try to avoid repeating them). As so much has already been said (and said better than I could), I am going to highlight the way the case could affect New York law (particularly conservation easements in NY). I get giddy anytime we here the Supreme Court mention conservation easements even when well they aren't really talking about conservation easements.
As we all know by now, there are two intriguing topics in Koontz.
(1) Timing. I like to think of this as when does a takings become a takings even if that is a bit inartfully said. On this point, I think both the majority and the dissent get it right. In thinking about the life of a permit and associated takings case, we generally see a landowner trying to get a permit to build on her property. In exchange for the permit, the permit-issuing agency requires something of the applicant. For example, let's say you want to build on your 10-acre property that is mostly wetlands. The local governement may allow you to build on 2 acres as long as you restrict building on the rest of the property with a conservation easement. Nollan tells us that the government's demand must have a significant nexus with the harm. For example, where the landowner converts wetlands, the exaction should be aboout protecting wetlands or the ecosystem services provided by wetlands. Dolan tells is that the government demand must be roughly proportional to the harm caused. If the property owner is converting 2-acres of wetland to dry land, you need to make sure the exaction compensates for those 2-acres -- requiring creation of a 100-acre wetland park would likely be considered disporportionate (unless you could show that those were some amazing super wetlands that were being destroyed). Okay, so far so good. This has been the established analysis for takings in the exaction context for some years now. This case now says, what if the governement tells the landowner that in return for developing 2-acres, she needs to protect 8 acres and the landowner thinks that is not proportional (i.e., violative of Dolan's rough proportionality rule).
Could our hypothetical landowner challenge this as a takings? Note, nothing has actually been taken at this point. She had not actually given over the 8 acres.
I actually think that Justice Alito gets it right (not sure I have ever written that phrase before) here when he says, yes. It simply doesn't make sense to go forward with the project and then seek compensation for the 8 acres. This is especially true in the context of exacted conservation easements because they are perpetual. What would we do afterward if a court held that the exaction was too much? It would be pretty hard to change the perpetual conservation easement at that point and compensation can be challenging to calculate. Although I agree with Alito on this principle though, I think Justice Kagan has a better read on the facts in Koontz. Here, it looked like the Water District (the permit agency) and the landowner were in negotiations over what type of exaction might be appropriate. Koontz made an offer. The Water District made a counteroffer, but said it was interested in further negotiations. Instead of more back and forth though, Koontz jumped straight to the lawsuit. I am not sure how to figure out at what point we would say that we have the final word from the agancy and its decision is ripe for review, but it doesn't seem like this should be it. The agency was still in discussions.
It also seems that Alito and Kagan both agree that Koontz doesn't get compensation here, as again nothing was actually taken. Does he get his permit issued though? That doesn't seem quite right to me either. It seems like we should go back to the agency to get another round of negotiations and a chance to impose a proper exaction.
(2) Definitional. Now, this is a question that has been intriguing me particularly since I moved to New York. What constistutes an exaction and therefore requires Nollan/Dolan analysis versus just run-o-the mill Penn Central style inquiry. I have had severeal conversations during my brief academic career on what constitutes an exaction (with Tim Mulvaney almost convincing me that requirements to paint your house a certain color should qualify). Logically, it makes sense that anything we are demanding of the landowner in exchange for a permit is an exaction. Thus, anything that is not the permit application fee or something already required by another law should qualify. Some courts and commentaters assert however that exactions are only interests in land. This has been an interesting issue in New York because of a case called Smith v. Town of Mendon from New York's highest court. In that case, the court confusingly held that a conservation restriction was not an exaction because it there was no public access but because it was bound by precedent the court acknowledged that you could have monetary exactions. In a short piece written between oral argument and the issuance of the opinion in Koontz (for the Environmental Law Section of the NY Bar Association), I discuss the meaning of exactions in New York and ponder the potential implications of Koontz on New York's rules. It seems hard to swallow New York's definition excluding conservation easements in light of this opinion, which seems to read exactions so broadly.
Overall, it is hard not to agree with commenters who believe this decision just makes things messier for courts and complicates land use planning. Tim Mulvaney has a great summary of course, with links to others chiming in.