Wisconsin family’s riverfront land at center of Supreme Court dispute

By SAM HANANEL, Associated Press

The U.S. Supreme Court could make it tougher for state and local governments to limit development in coastal areas.

Justices heard arguments on March 20 in a property rights case that involves a family’s effort to sell part of its riverfront land in Wisconsin. The family says conservation rules forbidding the sale stripped the land of its value and the government owes them compensation.

County officials nixed the sale because regulations treat the family’s two lots as a single property that can’t be split. Government officials say it’s fair to view the property as a whole.

More than 100 cities and counties across the U.S. have similar “merger” restrictions that treat two adjacent properties as one if they have the same owner.

The case has drawn interest from property rights and business groups that say such rules let the government avoid paying landowners for restricting land use.

The Constitution requires compensation if government regulations take away a property’s economic value.

The case began in 2004, when four siblings in the Murr family wanted to sell a vacant lot on the banks of the St. Croix River to pay for improvements on a rustic cabin that sits on the parcel next door. Their father had purchased the two 1.25-acre lots separately in the 1960s and had paid taxes separately. The lots were later transferred to the Murr siblings in the 1990s.

County officials blocking the sale point to regulations passed in 1976 that bar new construction on lots in the area to prevent overcrowding and pollution. A grandfather clause exempted existing owners. But the county won’t apply that exemption to the Murrs’ empty lot alone, since it is connected to the family’s other land.

The Murrs had viewed the vacant property as a long-term investment and say it has been assessed at $400,000.

A Wisconsin appeals court sided with the county, saying zoning rules did not take away the property’s value because the Murrs could still use both lots as a vacation property or sell them as a whole.

The county argues that a ruling against it would undermine its ability to minimize flood damage and maintain property values in the area. It argues that the family has treated both parcels as a single lot and says they could build a new home on either lot.