Cost of violating property rights

Article Courtesy of  Daytona News-Journal

By Christina Martin, Esq.  

Published April 14, 2016


“If you want Mr. Koontz’s land, why don’t you simply pay him for it?” Koontz’s attorney asked a cadre of St. Johns River Management District representatives.

To Koontz’s astonishment, one of the government agency’s attorneys said, “Why should we pay him for it when we can just take it from him?”

Coy Koontz Jr. has shared this story many times since. But despite the district’s dogged attempts, after 22 years of litigation and a trip to the Supreme Court of the United States, the government paid for the time it illegally denied Koontz the use of his land. The government thought it could take Koontz’s property rights without paying anything. Indeed, it almost succeeded.

The Koontz family’s troubles began when the late Coy Koontz Sr. applied to the St. Johns River Water Management District for a permit to build on 3.7 acres of his vacant property east of Orlando. The district at first said it would grant him a permit if he would donate the remaining 10.5 acres of his property to conservation. Koontz agreed to that demand. But the day before the permit hearing, the district demanded that in addition to dedicating his property to conservation, he would have to spend up to $150,000 repairing government land miles away from his property. Koontz objected to the ridiculous demand, and thus was denied his permit to build on his property.

He hired a lawyer and sued in 1994. The case bounced up and down through the courts as the district dug in its heels. In the midst of the litigation, he died, and his son Coy Koontz Jr carried on the cause. Eventually, a Florida trial court awarded Koontz damages for the time that the district denied Koontz the ability to develop his land by imposing the unconstitutional demand that he pay for repairs that had no relationship to his proposed development. The government appealed the case all the way to the Florida Supreme Court, which overturned the award.

The court held that the Takings Clause does not protect property owners from extortionate permit demands if those demands were for money. In other words, the Fifth Amendment’s protection for private property did not apply to money. The court also held that Koontz never lost anything, because he refused to accede to the extortionate demand.

Fortunately, the Pacific Legal Foundation — which never charges clients for attorney fees, because it is a nonprofit that litigates in the public interest — stepped in, convinced the Supreme Court to hear the case, and won, vindicating the rights of Koontz and property owners everywhere to pursue permits without being subjected to extortionate demands.

But the case was still not over. Since Koontz’s damages had been awarded under a state statute, the Supreme Court held in June 2013 that Florida courts would have to decide whether the damages were appropriate under the statute. Almost three years later, the Florida courts finally put the question to rest when the Florida Supreme Court denied the government’s last-ditch attempt to avoid paying for its wrongs.

Despite the district’s attempt to take property for free, the district has finally paid the Koontz family for taking the late Mr. Koontz’s property rights. The cost? More than two decades of litigation, more than $600,000 in damages (about half of which is interest), and impending litigation costs and attorney fees. We hope this serves as a lesson for ambitious bureaucrats everywhere that hope to get something for nothing.