- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 24, 2002

The Supreme Court yesterday refused to expand Americans' property rights, reaffirming that the government can temporarily block construction to protect the environment or prevent overdevelopment.
Justices ruled 6-3 against a group of landowners barred from building retirement homes near Lake Tahoe because of environmental concerns.
While not unsympathetic to the aging landowners, some of whom have died during the two-decade legal battle, the Supreme Court said if the court imposes time limits on temporary ordinances, decision-makers might be too hasty in setting permanent policy.
"It would only serve to disadvantage those landowners and interest groups who are not as organized or familiar with the planning process," Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the majority. "Formulating a general rule of this kind is a suitable task for state legislatures."
Justices had been asked to decide whether the Constitution's "takings" clause, which prohibits taking someone's land without compensation, applies to temporary government land-use bans like the one at Lake Tahoe.
The court's most conservative members said it applies.
"Because the prohibition on development of nearly six years in this case cannot be said to resemble any 'implied limitation' of state property law, it is a taking that requires compensation," Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist wrote in a dissent, joined by Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.
The chief justice said Lake Tahoe is a national treasure, but that a few citizens should not have to pay for its protection.
At issue were the rights of the hundreds of people who bought property on Lake Tahoe and have waited for permission to build there. The Tahoe Regional Planning Agency imposed a construction moratorium because of concerns about burgeoning development that was changing the color of Lake Tahoe, which is on the California-Nevada border.
The Supreme Court dealt only with a narrow issue of whether a temporary moratorium amounted to a taking and considered only part of the time that development was limited. They affirmed an appeals court decision against the landowners, who had sought $27 million in damages.
"It may well be true that any moratorium that lasts for more than one year should be viewed with special skepticism," Justice Stevens said.
But he said in this case, the judges determined that the Lake Tahoe agency deliberations were not unreasonable.
The case has a long court history, going before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals four times. The Bush administration had backed the agency.
The Supreme Court dealt with a similar case before, deciding in 1987 that governments do not have to pay for temporary takings if they are normal and relate to the routine permitting process.

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