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Saturday, March 2, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

High Court to Hear Property-Rights Question

(CN) - The Supreme Court agreed to tackle the issue of whether adjacent, commonly owned properties should be considered a single parcel for a regulatory takings analysis.

Joseph Murr, Michael Murr, Donna Murr and Peggy Heaver challenge a lower court's ruling that a land ordinance does not constitute an uncompensated taking of their property.

Their parents bought land in 1960, built a cabin on it and transferred the title to their plumbing company, according to court records. Three years later, the Murrs' parents bought an adjacent lot, which has stayed vacant since 1963.

The Murrs' parents transferred both lots to them in 1994 and 1995. The 1995 transfer of the second lot brought the two lots under common ownership and merged them, court records show.

A Wisconsin ordinance prohibits the individual development or sale of adjacent lots that are under common ownership unless a lot has at least an acre of developable land. However, under state law, if abutting, commonly owned lots don't each have at least one acre of developable land, they together constitute a single, buildable lot.

The Murrs eventually decided to sell the vacant lot. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and St. Croix County, Wis., zoning staff opposed the Murrs' application and it was denied after a public hearing.

After a failed appeals process, the Murrs sued the State of Wisconsin and St. Croix County, claiming the ordinance in question caused an uncompensated taking of their property because the vacant lot can't be sold or developed as a separate lot.

The Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution has a provision called the Takings Clause, which says that private property cannot be taken for public use without fair compensation.

The circuit court found that the Murrs' claim was time-barred because the ordinance had immediate economic effects when it was enacted in the mid-1970s. The court also found that there was no illegal taking because the property as a whole could be used for residential and other purposes.

Both lots combined retained significant value based on an appraisal, the circuit court ruled.

The Murrs appealed the ruling but the Wisconsin Court of Appeals upheld the lower court's decision in December 2014.

"The undisputed facts establish that the Murrs' property, viewed as a whole, retains beneficial and practical use as a residential lot. Accordingly, we conclude they have not alleged a compensable taking as a matter of law," the per curiam appeals court ruling states.

In a petition filed last August, the Murrs asked the U.S. Supreme Court to address whether the "parcel as a whole" concept from its landmark 1978 decision in Penn Central Transportation Co. vs. City of New York means that two legally distinct but commonly owned land parcels must be combined for the purposes of a takings analysis.

"The 'parcel as a whole' concept has never been applied by [the Supreme] Court to a horizontal division of a fee interest in land," the petition states. "Yet, this factual context will be most useful to lower federal and state courts."

The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case on Friday. Per its custom, the high court did not comment on its grant of review.

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