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IN the rush of interest over the U.S. Supreme Court’s rulings on social issues, its ruling on property rights has been overlooked. In Koontz v. St. Johns River Water Management District, the court reaffirmed Tuesday that local governments cannot ask too much of property owners who apply for development permits.

The case was from Florida. An owner of land, some of it wetland, wanted to develop one-quarter of it. To get his permits, he offered to sign away the development rights on the rest.

The local authority said he would also have to pay to fill ditches or replace culverts on a larger piece of land in another place.

The Supreme Court said this was unreasonable. It is fine for a government to obligate an owner to absorb the social costs of a development. If a subdivision creates too much traffic, for example, the developer may have to pay to improve a road. But there must be a connection (a “nexus”) and a “rough proportionality” between the costs and the obligation.

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In this case, the court declared that government had asked for too much, counting the development rights and the money for the culvert removal.

Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the court majority that an opportunity for extortion arises when the government’s permit “is worth far more than property it would like to take.”

That is an issue here.

“Local governments here impose exactions on almost every development permit,” said Bellevue land-use attorney Charlie Klinge. Sometimes a court is asked to decide which exactions are proportional and which are not.

“The ruling in Koontz,” Klinge said, is a warning for local authorities “to avoid unreasonable demands.”

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