Article Courtesy of Daytona News-Journal
By Christina Martin, Esq.
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
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
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.