(CN) – The U.S. Navy violated a landowner’s Fifth Amendment right when it purchased land outside a wildlife refuge to build a 188-unit housing project for Navy personnel, the Federal Circuit ruled.
Schooner Harbor bought 82 acres of land next to the Mississippi Sandhill Crane Natural Wildlife Refuge in 2000 for almost $1 million. The U.S. Navy shortly began a search for land to develop its housing project for personnel stationed in Pascagoula, Miss.
The Fish and Wildlife Service informed the Navy that construction of the housing project would impact the Mississippi sandhill crane, and ordered 90 acres of replacement wildlife habitat be added to the refuge in order to offset the impact on the endangered species.
In April 2002, Schooner Harbor and the Navy hammered out a deal for the sale of the property for $1.9 million. Schooner transferred the land, and then sued, alleging that it was deprived of its right to benefit from the sale of the property.
It claimed that it was required by the federal government to spend $312,500 to sell the property, and accused the Fish and Wildlife Service of prohibiting it from developing remaining land by threatening enforcement of the Endangered Species Act.
The regulations “effectively deprived (Schooner Harbor) of all productive and beneficial use of the property,” the landowner claimed.
The government sought and won summary judgment in the Court of Federal Claims, which stated that the government was acting as a purchaser, not a sovereign, and that Schooner failed to identify a “cognizable property interest.”
The Federal Circuit reversed, finding that Schooner Harbor’s takings claim does in fact identify a cognizable property interest – “its right to develop its land.”
Because of the rule that Schooner Harbor could not develop the property, “the government cannot escape liability by purchasing the property at the lower, development-restricted price.”