Tag: property rights

A Property Rights Victory in the Magnolia State

One of the unambiguously good results from last Tuesday’s off-year elections came in Mississippi, the state I called home the year before I moved to D.C.  By the impressive margin of 73% to 27%, voters in the Magnolia State took a stand against judicially sanctioned eminent domain abuse, specifically the government’s taking of private property in the name of so-called “economic development.”  

By passing Measure 31, which prohibits most transfers of condemned land to private parties for 10 years after condemnation, Mississippi joins 44 other states in enacting legislation that strengthens property rights in the wake of the Supreme Court’s horrific ruling in Kelo v. New London.  In Kelo (2005), you’ll recall, the Court held that state and local governments can condemn private property not for some sort of public project like a highway or military base nor because it is a “blight” that creates a health or safety risk, but simply to transfer to another private party who claims to put it to better economic use. 

We at Cato are all in favor of economic development, of course, but not if that development comes via raw government power that treads on constitutionally protected individual rights.  If a developer thinks he can put a given piece of land to a higher-value use, let him buy that property fair and square from the owner rather than effectively forcing a sale at below-market value.

Indeed, Kelo’s holding was flawed precisely because its rationale that transferring ownership of “economically blighted” property would promote economic development is bad economics. If a proposed project were actually a better use of a given property, the developer would be willing to pay a price sufficient to induce the current owners to leave.

Kelo also undermines property security, making owners less willing to invest in their property and use it productively, lest the government swoop in, declare it “blighted,” and sell it to someone else. And securing property rights is not just a good thing economically.  It also helps prevent powerful private interest groups from undercutting the property rights of minorities and other groups who may be vulnerable due to prejudice or political disadvantage.

And the American people agree: Kelo turned out to be a Pyrrhic victory for developers and their public-official cronies, such that most of the country is now better protected against eminent domain abuse than it was before Kelo.  Notably absent from the list of states where property rights are better off, however, is New York (see my comment on a recent instance of eminent domain abuse in the Empire State).

The judiciary’s abdication of its role as a protector of property rights is bad enough, but our elected officials haven’t done much better. Tellingly, the drivers of successful anti-Kelo legislation have tended not to be state legislators (with some exception) but rather citizen-activists.  While special-interest groups, such as big car companies in Mississippi, may pressure legislators to avoid anti-Kelo legislation, even as referenda show that popular opinion is on the side of the property rights activists.

Measure 31 is not perfect, but it is a step in the right direction. The Founders took care to protect private property rights in the Constitution, and it’s heartening to see citizens taking an active role to vindicate those protections even when the Supreme Court abdicates its duty to do so.

For more commentary on the Mississippi vote, see Ilya Somin’s recent op-ed.

Another Judicial Takings Case Reaches the Supreme Court

For over a century, Montana citizens have used non-navigable streambeds along their properties for various purposes without objection from the state government.  The hydroelectric energy company PPL Montana and thousands of other private parties exercised their rights over these non-navigable stretches that the state never claimed. 

Last year, however, the Montana Supreme Court overturned well-settled state property law by effectively converting the title in hundreds of miles of riverbeds to state ownership. The majority of the court ruled that the entirety of the Missouri, Clark Fork, and Madison rivers were navigable at the time of Montana’s statehood, producing a broad holding that eradicates the right to use rivers and riverbanks that Montanans had enjoyed for over a century.

PPL Montana thus asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review the state court’s decision; Cato filed an amicus brief supporting that request, which the Court granted.  Now that the case is before the Court, Cato has joined the Montana Farm Bureau Federation, American Farm Bureau Federation, and National Federation of Independent Business on a brief supporting the property owners.

We are chiefly concerned with two parts of the Montana Supreme Court’s ruling:  First, the court incorrectly evaluated navigability for the purpose of establishing title – finding the entirety of the rivers at issue navigable (and thus belonging to the state) because portions of them are – contravening the legal standard established by the U.S. Supreme Court in United States v. Utah (which analyzed the riverbeds section-by-section to achieve a “precise” assessment of navigability).  Second, the court effectively transferred a substantial quantity of land from private owners to the state – a judicial taking that violates either the Fifth or Fourteenth Amendments (as the Court described in the recent Stop the Beach Renourishment case, in which Cato also filed a brief).  

In short, the Court should reaffirm the Utah standard for navigability in the context of establishing title and protect private property owners against judicial takings.  By doing so, it would send a strong message to state courts across the nation that judicial usurpations of property rights are just as unconstitutional as those undertaken by other branches of government.

The Court will hear the case of PPL Montana, LLC v. Montana late this year or in early 2012.  Again, you can find Cato’s brief here.

Monday Links

The Takings Clause Has No Expiration Date II

As I wrote last week, a decade ago in Palazzolo v. Rhode Island, the Supreme Court rejected the idea that those who buy property subject to burdensome regulations lose the right the seller otherwise has to challenge those regulations.  The Court ruled that the Takings Clause does not have an “expiration date.”  Sadly, not all government authorities or courts took Palazzolo to heart, and now we have a second such case meriting Cato’s involvement in the span of a week.

In 2000, after the EPA issued a Record of Decision concerning limiting access to a “slough” (a narrow strip of navigable water) on its Superfund National Priorities List, CRV Enterprises began negotiations to buy a parcel of land next to the slough across from a site once occupied by a wood-preserving plant.  CRV hoped to develop that parcel and others it already controlled into a mixed-use development, including a marina, boat slips, restaurants, lodging, storage, sales, and service facilities.  The company eventually bought the land with notice of the EPA’s ROD but the EPA later installed a “sand cap” and “log boom” that obstructed CRV’s access to the slough.

CRV sued the United States in the Court of Federal Claims, which dismissed the case for lack of standing. The Federal Circuit affirmed, finding that CRV’s claim “is barred because [the company] did not own a valid property interest at the time of the alleged regulatory taking.”  The Federal Circuit thus turned two Supreme Court precedents on their head and put that “expiration date” on the Takings Clause.  It did so despite the fact that multiple federal courts have upheld Palazzolo’s rule and that longstanding California common law recognizes that a littoral (next to water) owner’s access to the shore adjacent to his property is a property right.

Cato, joined by Reason Foundation, the Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence, and the National Federation of Independent Business, filed an amicus brief supporting CRV’s request that the Supreme Court review the Federal Circuit’s decision and reaffirm Palazzolo.  We argue the following: (1) when post-enactment purchasers are per se denied standing to challenge regulation, government power expands at the expense of private property rights; (2) a rule under which pre-enactment owners have superior rights to subsequent title-holders threatens to disrupt real estate markets; (3) the Federal Circuit abrogated the rule of Palazzolo; and (4) this case — viewed in the context of other courts’ rulings — indicates the need for the Supreme Court to settle the spreading confusion about Palazzolo.  Otherwise, the existence of a “post-enactment” rule will create a “massive uncompensated taking” from small developers and investors that would preserve and enhance the rights of large corporations.

Palazzolo put to rest “once and for all the notion that title to property is altered when it changes hands.”  The ability of property owners to challenge government interference with their property is essential to a proper understanding of the Fifth Amendment; the Court must reestablish the principle that transfer of title does not diminish property rights.  Significantly, the Federal Circuit isn’t alone in its misapplication of Palazzolo; the Ninth Circuit in Guggenheim v. City of Goleta (in which Cato also filed a brief) recently issued an opinion severely narrowing Palazzolo’s scope and deepening a circuit split.

Thanks to legal associate Nick Mosvick and former legal associate Brandon Simmons (acting as our outside counsel in this case) for their work on this case, CRV Enterprises v. United States.

The Takings Clause Has No Expiration Date

Just a decade ago in Palazzolo v. Rhode Island, the Supreme Court rejected the idea that those who buy property subject to burdensome regulations lose the right the seller otherwise has to challenge those regulations. The Court ruled that the Takings Clause does not have an “expiration date.”

Sadly, not all government authorities or courts took Palazzolo to heart. In 1997, Daniel and Susan Guggenheim bought a mobile home park that, at the time of purchase, was in “unincorporated territory” of Santa Barbara County, California. The Guggenheims did not challenge the county’s 1979 rent control ordinance but instead challenged the 2002 adoption of that ordinance by the City of Goleta when the city incorporated the Guggenheims’ land.

The Ninth Circuit essentially limited Palazzolo to its particular facts and circumstances, deciding to convert the established three-factor test for regulatory takings (Penn Central) into a one-factor test focused solely on “investment-backed expectations.” The court did this largely on the premise that the Guggenheims did not present an “as-applied” challenge — as Palazzolo did — to the ordinance’s application to their mobile home park, but instead filed a facial challenge to the constitutionality of the ordinance itself. As a result, the Ninth Circuit turned two Supreme Court precedents on their head and put that “expiration date” on the Takings Clause in this case.

Significantly, the Ninth Circuit isn’t alone in its misapplication of Palazzolo; the Federal Circuit in CRV Enterprises v. United States (in which Cato will also be filing a brief) also recently issued an opinion severely narrowing Palazzolo’s scope and deepening a circuit split.

Cato filed an amicus brief supporting the Guggenheims’ request that the Supreme Court review the Ninth Circuit decision and reaffirm its decision in Palazzolo. The brief argues the Supreme Court should review the case because: (1) a rule that allows the transfer of title to immunize government regulation from constitutional or other legal challenge expands government power and diminishes property rights; (2) the Ninth Circuit “flouts” the rule of Palazzolo; and (3) this case — as well as CRV Enterprises — indicates the need for the Supreme Court to settle the spreading confusion about Palazzolo.

Otherwise, the existence of a “post-enactment” rule will create a “massive uncompensated taking” from small developers and investors that would preserve and enhance the rights of large corporations. The ability of property owners to challenge government interference with their property is essential to a proper understanding of the Fifth Amendment; the Court must reestablish the principle that transfer of title does not diminish property rights.

Thanks to legal associate Nick Mosvick and former legal associate Brandon Simmons (acting as our outside counsel in this case) for their work on this case, Guggenheim v. City of Goleta.

March Madness: Eminent Domain Abuse Goes Coast-to-Coast

This is a big week for private property rights.  Two epic eminent domain struggles are playing out on opposite sides of the country. 

First, National City, California, is ground zero for eminent domain abuse.  City officials declared several hundred properties blighted even before conducting a blight study that was riddled with problems. The city wants to seize and bulldoze a youth community center (CYAC) that has transformed the lives of hundreds of low-income kids, so a wealthy developer can build high-rise luxury condos:


CYAC has numerous volunteers, including local law enforcement officers, providing free mentoring in boxing as well as academics.  The gym is famous for getting kids off the street and back into school.  As Rick Reilly explained in a feature in Sports Illustrated (boy, how I miss his inside-back-page column):

You know what, Mayor? National City doesn’t need more luxury condos. It needs good men like the Barragans teaching kids respect for neighbors and property, manners you could use a little of yourself.

And if you kick the Barragans out so some slick in Armani can buy a bigger yacht, I hope your car stereo gets jacked—weekly—by a kid who would’ve otherwise been lovingly coached on their jabs and their math and their lives.

Question: Can you declare politicians blighted?

This week, the gym’s battle is in trial before the Superior Court of California.  Represented by the Institute for Justice (who else?), a victory will help protect private property far beyond National City and clarify the use and misuse of blight designations.

Second, moving to the other side of the country, we go to Mount Holly, New Jersey:


Mount Holly is another classic case of “Robin Hood-in-Reverse.”  Officials have been dismantling a close-knit community known as the Gardens for the last decade so a Philadelphia developer can bulldoze the area and build more expensive residential properties.

Homeowners in the Gardens are primarily minorities and the elderly.  The row-style houses are being torn down while still attached to occupied homes, and officials refuse to offer the remaining homeowners replacement housing in the new redevelopment.  Further, owners are being offered less than half the amount it would cost to buy a similar home blocks away.

Here, IJ just launched a billboard campaign and did a study that concludes the eminent domain abuse project may result in a loss of a million taxpayer dollars a year, or one-tenth of the Township’s budget.

I previously wrote about eminent domain shenanigans here and you can read more from Cato on property rights here.

Property Rights and the Takoma Park Tree Tussle

It’s enviro vs. enviro in Washington’s most “progressive” suburb, Takoma Park. Indeed, the Washington Post reports, “a potentially bough-breaking debate between sun-worshipers and tree-huggers.” That is, which is more environmentally desirable, solar power or tree cover?

The modest gray house in Takoma Park was nearly perfect, from Patrick Earle’s staunchly environmentalist point of view. It was small enough for wood-stove heating, faced the right way for good solar exposure and, most important, was in a liberal suburb that embraces all things ecological.

Or almost all. When Earle and his wife, Shannon, recently sought to add solar panels to the house, which they have been turning into a sustainability showplace, the couple discovered that Takoma Park values something even more than new energy technologies: big, old trees.

When they applied to cut down a partially rotten 50-foot silver maple that overshadowed their roof, the Earles ran into one of the nation’s strictest tree-protection ordinances. Under the law, the town arborist would approve removing the maple only if the couple agreed to pay $4,000 into a city tree-replacement fund or plant 23 saplings on their own.

So now the rival environmentalists are squaring off in front of the city council:

Takoma Park City Council members, who are considering revising the 1983 tree-protection law, listened Monday night as otherwise like-minded activists vied to claim the green high ground.

Tree partisans hailed the benefits of the leafy canopy that shades 59 percent of the town: Trees absorb carbon, take up stormwater, control erosion and provide natural cooling….

Solar advocates at the hearing said that they are tree lovers, too, but that scientific studies support the idea of poking select holes in the tree cover to let a little sun power through.

Being an environmentalist homeowner can become a full-time job:

But even some veteran solar users don’t like the idea of trading trees for panels. Mike Tidwell, founder of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, installed solar panels on his Takoma Park house 10 years ago. As the trees have grown, the panels’ effectiveness has diminished, and Tidwell now buys wind power credits to supplement them.

Still, he said, “I don’t believe you should cut down trees for solar.” Rather, he thinks neighbors should work together to place shared panels on the sunniest roofs.

The city’s “official arborist” turned down Earle’s application to tear down one rotting tree to accommodate his solar panels. Now the council is debating the issue.

The Earles’ council member, Josh Wright, said he was sympathetic to their plight. He said it should remain hard to cut down a tree, but he’d like to see a break for people installing solar power. Wright also wants all homeowners to get credit for trees they may have planted in the years before they remove a tree.

It all sounds very complicated. And who knows what the right answer is? Or if there is a right answer? Or if the right answer might change next year?

And that’s where property rights come in.  They allocate both jurisdiction and liability over scarce resources, like roofs, trees, and access to sunlight.  A little “law and economics” can help to understand the Takoma Park Tree Tussle.  Nobel Laureate in Economics Ronald Coase, who just turned 100, brought law and economics together to study the way that people externalize costs (make others pay for them) or internalize them (take them into account when making decisions).  When property rights are well defined and legally secure, and rights can be exchanged at low cost, resources will be directed to their most highly valued use.  In fact, the initial allocation of property rights doesn’t affect the allocation of resources, if the transfers are freely and easily negotiable.

That, unfortunately, is no longer the case in Takoma Park, where instead of a fairly straightforward transaction (facilitated by a purchase), there is a tussle over ill-defined rights and obligations that have little or no legal security, in a very expensive and costly process of negotiation that will almost certainly consume more wood pulp for memos than is contained in the tree in question.  Well-defined and legally secure property rights save us the rather substantial trouble of sitting down like the Takoma Park City Council and trying to judge the advisability of every proposed purchase, all the while consuming large amounts of paper and exuding large amount of hot air.