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Know the West

Property rights reined in


Urban planning and environmental protection got a shot in the arm on April 23, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that property owners at Lake Tahoe are not entitled to government compensation for a moratorium that prevented them from building on their land (HCN, 2/18/02).

Following a series of Supreme Court decisions that bolstered the position of what he calls "radical property-rights advocates," Luther Propst, head of the Tucson-based Sonoran Institute, says that the Tahoe decision is "a huge reversal of that trend." The Sonoran Institute works with the National Association of Counties to help Western county commissioners devise solutions to land-use issues.

To protect Lake Tahoe's famous blue waters from erosion runoff, the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency in 1981 put a 32-month moratorium on new building while it drew up a long-term management plan that ultimately put tight restrictions on new development. In 1984, a group of about 2,000 landowners sued the congressionally created planning agency, claiming that they were owed compensation for the loss of use of their land, and over the next 18 years the case worked its way to the top of the court system.

Writing for the majority, Justice John Paul Stevens noted that a broad new principle requiring compensation for the impacts of land-use regulations "would transform government regulation into a luxury few governments could afford" and affirmed that moratoriums are "an essential tool of successful development."

But Propst says the ruling isn't just about moratoriums: "It really goes a long way to affirming that the courts will support counties in using all the tools for better managing growth."