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High Court upholds state ruling in Troy land dispute

Members of the Murr family, along with attorney John Groen, spoke from outside U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., after their case was heard by the high court in March. (Photo courtesy of Pacific Legal Foundation)

The nation’s highest court ruled Friday, June 23 that a land-use ruling on a small patch of St. Croix County riverside property was constitutional.

The U.S. Supreme Court decided 5-3 St. Croix County’s decision to merge two adjoining properties owned by the same family was correct, upholding the state court’s decision.

Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the opinion for the court, joined by justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

“The court holds that the state court was correct to analyze the property at issue in this case as a single unit,” Kennedy wrote. “Considering petitioners’ property as a whole, the state court was correct to conclude that petitioners cannot establish a compensable taking in these circumstances. Petitioners have not suffered a taking... as they have not been deprived of all economically beneficial use of their property.

“Like the ultimate question whether a regulation has gone too far, the question of the proper parcel in regulatory takings cases cannot be solved by any simple test. See Arkansas Game and Fish Comm’n v. United States, 568 U. S. 23, 31 (2012). Courts must instead define the parcel in a manner that reflects reasonable expectations about the property. Courts must strive for consistency with the central purpose of the Takings Clause: to ‘bar Government from forcing some people alone to bear public burdens which, in all fairness and justice, should be borne by the public as a whole.’ Armstrong, 364 U. S., at 49. Treating the lot in question as a single parcel is legitimate for purposes of this takings inquiry, and this supports the conclusion that no regulatory taking occurred here.”

Chief Justice John Roberts dissented, joined by justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito. Justice Neil Gorsuch did not participate.

“State law defines the boundaries of distinct parcels of land, and those boundaries should determine the ‘private property’ at issue in regulatory takings cases.” Roberts wrote. “Whether a regulation effects a taking of that property is a separate question, one in which common ownership of adjacent property may be taken into account. Because the majority departs from these settled principles, I respectfully dissent.”

The Pacific Legal Foundation and Murr family were disheartened by the Court’s adverse ruling.

“This is an unfortunate decision for the Murrs, and all property owners,” said Pacific Legal Foundation lead attorney and Executive Vice President John Groen in a news release. “We are disappointed that the court did not recognize the fundamental unfairness to the Murrs of having their separate properties combined, simply to avoid the protection of the Takings Clause.

“We will continue the fight for property owners and for the integrity of the constitutional right against uncompensated government takings,” he continued. “PLF is honored to represent the Murr family, and while we are disappointed in today’s decision, we know the battle to secure constitutional rights is an ongoing effort.”

Donna Murr responded to the ruling on behalf of herself and her family.

“As a family, we are very proud of our achievements and all we have endured.”

The central question before the high court was the constitutionality of state and local laws that effectively merged two riverfront properties in the town of Troy into one because of common ownership. Members of Murr family — who inherited the land from their parents — own two adjoining parcels along the St. Croix River, one of which contains a cabin, the other a vacant patch of land.

The family sought to sell the vacant parcel in order to pay for upgrades to the cabin, but were prevented from doing so by St. Croix County.

“If anyone else in the world, other than the Murr siblings, owned (the vacant lot), that owner could sell or develop it,” Groen said during his argument to the court in March. “But the Murrs cannot.”

Wisconsin’s solicitor general argued that a legal link between the properties is the distinction. Solicitor Misha Tseytlin said that legal link exists between the two Murr properties and that’s what combines them into one in the government’s eye.

Regional editor Sarah Young contributed to this report.

Mike Longaecker

Mike Longaecker is the regional public safety reporter for RiverTown Multimedia. His coverage area spans St. Croix and Pierce counties. Longaecker served from 2011-2015 as editor of the Woodbury Bulletin. A University of Wisconsin-River Falls graduate, Longaecker previously reported for the Red Wing Republican Eagle and for the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau. You can follow him on Twitter at @Longaecker

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