The highest court in the United States today ruled 5-3 in favor of St. Croix County, Wisconsin’s ability to restrict development on the St. Croix River. The decision means there will be one less lot available for construction on the river south of Hudson — with implications for other scenic areas around the nation.
The ruling (PDF) came three months after the court heard oral arguments in Washington, D.C. The justices agreed with lower courts that the county’s regulations intended to limit development on the lower river did not illegally deprive land-owners of its value.
The case hinged on a parcel of property that had been owned and used by the Murr family for the past 50 years. The owners now wished to divide the property and sell one part. Zoning ordinances passed in 1976 prohibited dividing parcels that didn’t have an acre of buildable land.
The court wrote that the Murr family should not have been surprised that they could not sell off part of the land. “Their terrain and shape make it reasonable to expect their range of potential uses might be limited,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the opinion. “Petitioners could have anticipated regulation of the property due to its location along the river, which was regulated by federal, state, and local law long before they acquired the land.”
The family and the property-rights organization that had represented them expressed disappointment after the ruling.
“Notwithstanding this disappointing decision, we are confident our case will still make a difference for other Americans,” Donna Murr said in a statement. “It is our hope that property owners across the country will learn from our experience and not take their property rights for granted.”
In an article previewing the case in March, University of Wisconsin law professor Miriam Seifter explained that because the property was held in common ownership, and was conveyed from the original owners to their children after the 1976 ordinance went into effect, it was legally considered one parcel.
The Wisconsin Court of Appeals had ruled that such a decision did not deprive the landowners of its value.
“[T]he Murrs could still make plenty of use of their land. The siblings could keep both lots and locate their cabin on either lot, or they could sell the two lots together. They just could not treat the land as two separately developable parcels,” Seifter wrote.
Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan joined Kennedy in the ruling. Chief Justice John Roberts, and Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito dissented. Justice Neil Gorsuch did not join the court until after the arguments and was not involved in the decision.