Next month, the US Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in commercial property case Koontz vs. St. Johns River Water Management District. Koontz is an interesting and lengthy case, begun 18 years ago in 1994 when Florida landowner Coy Koontz applied for a permit to develop land he had bought years earlier in 1972.
At the time of the 17.9 acre vacant lot’s purchase, according to court filings, Koontz’s property, located at the intersection of two state highways, was unencumbered by state and local regulations, and land-use law permitted him full use of his property. By 1994, that had changed significantly.
In 1985, Florida enacted an environmental statute implementing regulations to control the use of private property containing wetlands and uplands suitable for fish and wildlife habitat. By 1994, all but 1.4 acres of Koontz’s property was included in a Habitat Protection Zone overseen by the St. Johns River Water Management District.
Mr Koontz submitted applications for development in 1994, including mitigations for the disturbance to the habitat, as per district regulations. He offered to place eleven acres of his property into a conservation easement.
According to court filings, the district’s response was that they would recommend to deny the permit unless Mr. Koontz, in addition to the surrender of 11 acres of his property, financed the restoration and enhancement of at least 50 acres of welands on District-owned property miles away, by replacing culverts, digging ditches and building a road.
In 1994, Mr Koontz filed an action against the District which was only heard eventually in 2002 on the question “wether the off-site mitigation required by the District was an unreasonable exercise of police power”. The court found for the landowner, causing the District to approve the permit without the work it had required to be done on land located miles away. Damages were also awarded to Mr. Koontz.
However, the District appealed the case, and this is where the road to the Supreme Court really begins.
In the appeal, the District did not challenge any factual findings in the lower court case, but instead attacked the applicability of cases Mr. Koontz’s attorneys had argued were applicable to the exaction the District sought from Mr. Koontz, cases named Nollan vs. California Costal Commission and Dolan vs. City of Tigard. The technical legal argument about the specifics of takings by the state — which Koontz’s legal team hard argued applied — was now back on the table.
The Florida Appellate court found for Mr. Koontz, then the Florida Supreme court found against him.
The Supreme Court is up to hear the case and settle it once and for all on January 15th.