What to Make of Murr v. Wisconsin

by Eric Christianson

Suppose a landowner owns two adjacent parcels, which she purchased at two different points in time.  One parcel is 20 acres that consists almost entirely of wetlands. The second parcel, immediately to the west, is 50 acres of rolling, developable land.

Years after she purchased both parcels the state enacts a law that effectively prohibits filling, dredging, developing, or otherwise modifying wetlands. The landowner sues the state, claiming a taking of “all viable use” of her property.

What is her “property”?  The landowner will claim that her property for purposes of her takings claim is only the parcel made up of the 20 acres of now-unbuildable wetlands. The state will argue that her property is both parcels taken together, which means the landowner continues to have “viable use” 50 of her 70 total acres.

Who is right?  Courts have long struggled with developing rules for determining the appropriate “denominator parcel” for analyzing taking claims. In Murr v Wisconsin (see the full case brief from last week below) the Supreme Court dealt with precisely this question. And while not offering any clear rules, the court does seem to give local governments the benefit of the doubt in this determination.

A key element in arguing a regulatory takings claim successfully is that the owners show that they have been deprived of, “all or nearly all economically beneficial use of their land” by the offending regulation. This is often determined by comparing the value of the property before the law in question went into effect to its value under the effects of the new law.

Defining the property more narrowly usually gives the landowner the upper hand. Focusing only on the effected parcel makes the loss more severe relative to its value. However, when considered with the entirety of a property owner’s holdings, the deprivation may be less significant relative to the the full value of the land. This is often called the “denominator problem” in takings analysis. Courts need to determine which value to divide the loss by to see if a law has resulted in a loss of all economically viable use.

One complicating factor is the existence of merger provisions in state and local law which under certain circumstances automatically merge adjoining parcels held under common ownership. Such merger provisions have been features of local zoning ordinances for a long time. Towns began enacting them in the 1920s. They were very common by the 1960s, because local governments and state courts recognized that they represent an attractive middle ground between two unattractive extremes: (1) entirely prohibiting the development of substandard lots, which would be a hardship to their owners, and (2) allowing the development of all substandard lots, which would be a hardship to neighbors and restrict the ability of a community to pass regulations.

Whether the inclusion of a merger provision in local law is enough to determine the relevant parcel was one of the most important aspects of Murr v. Wisconson. In this case, the Supreme Court adopted a three-part test to help guide lower courts in making this determination. It also gives local governments some idea what the extent of their power is in setting land use regulations.

This new test directs courts to take into account: (1) state and local law, (2) the physical characteristics of the land, and (3) the prospective value of the land. This case does not give us any bright line rules, but it appears that merger clauses will determine the relevant parcel in most cases. Kennedy’s argument in adding physical characteristics and prospective value to the equation is his attempt to avoid “gamesmanship” by states to avoid paying for regulatory takings. States do not have total power to determine what property rights are.

In returning to our example above, while we do not have a clear answer as to how a court would rule, we do have some idea how a court should reason. (1) What does state and local law say about these two parcels? Are they entirely separate? Or, is there some provision in state law which treats them as merged? (2) How do these two parcels fit together? Are they simply touching along a short edge or do they form a cohesive whole? (3) Finally what is the financial impact of the regulation on the parcels? Are the 20 acres of wetland a total loss or can they serve some economic purpose? Perhaps the wetland is an attractive amenity raising the value of a future housing development on the other 50 acres. Clearly our simple example does not have enough detail for us to answer all these questions.

The second and third factors have to do with the inherent qualities of the land and the local property market, but local governments do have control over the first. In Murr the Court gave significant weight to the existence of a merger provision local law.

In the end, this decision preserves the right of local governments to set minimum lot sizes and avoid further subdivision even where lot lines may appear on a plat map. This is overall a win for local and state governments. However, Kennedy finishes up the opinion of the court by reflecting that much like the analysis of regulatory takings itself, determining the relevant parcel “cannot be solved by any simple test.” If recent takings fights have taught us anything, where there is ambiguity, there will be litigation. Stay tuned.

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