In Murr v. Wisconsin, U.S., 137 S.Ct. 1933 (2017), the U.S. Supreme Court established a multi-factored test to determine what is the proper unit of property against which to assess whether a challenged governmental action constitutes a regulatory taking for which just compensation is owed under the U.S. Constitution. Because the test for a regulatory taking involves a comparison of the value that has been taken from the property with the value that remains in the property, the multi-factored test defines “the unit of property ‘whose value is to furnish the denominator of the fraction.’”

In Murr, Petitioners owned two adjacent lots–Lot E and Lot F–along the lower portion of a river in Wisconsin that is protected under local state and federal law. State and local regulations prevented the use or sale of adjacent lots as separate building sites unless they have at least one acre of land suitable for development. Both lots were over one acre in size, but each had less than one acre suitable for development due to their topography. The unification of the lots under the Petitioners’ common ownership implicated the rules barring their separate sale or development. Petitioners considered selling Lot E as part of an improvement plan for the lots, and sought variances from the existing regulations from a local agency. However, that agency denied the variance request and the state courts affirmed on the ground that the regulations effectively merged the lots for sale or development purposes.

Petitioners filed suit in state court against the State of Wisconsin on the ground that the merger regulations were a taking under the U.S. Constitution because the regulations deprived Petitioners of all, or practically all of the use of Lot E since the lot cannot be sold or developed as a separate lot under the regulations. The trial court granted summary judgment to the State on the ground that Petitioners had other options to enjoy and use their properties. The trial court also found that Petitioners had not been deprived of all economic value of their property because the decrease in market value of the unified lots was less than 10 percent. The Wisconsin Court of Appeals affirmed summary judgment. The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari and affirmed.

Writing for the 5-3 majority, Justice Kennedy described the key legal question in the case as follows:

What is the proper unit of property against which to assess the effect of the challenged governmental action? Put another way, “[b]ecause our test for regulatory taking requires us to compare the value that has been taken from the property with the value that remains in the property, one of the critical questions is determining how to define the unit of property ‘whose value is to furnish the denominator of the fraction.’” [Citations omitted.]

The majority rejected each of the formalistic rules advocated by the State and Petitioners because “the question of the proper parcel in regulatory takings cases cannot be solved by any simple test.” Justice Kennedy stated that no single consideration can supply the exclusive test for determining the denominator. That is because of the competing constitutional principles underlying the Takings Clause. Justice Kennedy explained:

A central dynamic of the Court’s regulatory takings jurisprudence, then, is its flexibility. This has been and remains a means to reconcile two competing objectives central to regulatory takings doctrine. One is the individual’s right to retain the interests and exercise the freedoms at the core of private property ownership. Property rights are necessary to preserve freedom, for property ownership empowers persons to shape and to plan their own destiny in a world where governments are always eager to do so for them.

The other persisting interest is the government’s well-established power to “adjus[t] rights for the public good.” In adjudicating regulatory takings cases a proper balancing of these principles requires a careful inquiry informed by the specifics of the case. In all instances, the analysis must be driven “by the purpose of the Takings Clause, which is to prevent the 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.’”.

In light of those countervailing public policies, Justice Kennedy stated that courts must consider a number of factors in making the “denominator” determination:

[W]hether reasonable expectations about property ownership would lead a landowner to anticipate that his holdings would be treated as one parcel, or, instead, as separate tracts. The inquiry is objective, and the reasonable expectations at issue derive from background customs and the whole of our legal tradition.

The majority held that the factors to be considered in such an analysis are the following.

First, courts should give substantial weight to the treatment of the land, in particular how it is bounded or divided, under state and local law. This factor recognizes that “reasonable expectations of an acquirer of land must acknowledge legitimate restrictions affecting his or her subsequent use and dispensation of the property.” Therefore, a reasonable restriction that predates a landowner’s acquisition can be one of the objective factors that most landowners would reasonably consider in forming fair expectations about their property.

Second, courts must look to the physical characteristics of the landowner’s property. Such characteristics include the physical relationship of any distinguishable tracts, the parcel’s topography, and the surrounding human and ecological environment. For example, the property’s location in an area that is subject to, or likely to become subject to, environmental or other regulation is a relevant consideration.

Third, courts should assess the value of the property under the challenged regulation, with special attention to the effect of burdened land on the value of other holdings. Though a use restriction may decrease the market value of the property, the effect may be tempered if the regulated land adds value to the remaining property, such as by increasing privacy, expanding recreational space, or preserving surrounding natural beauty.

Applying that multifactor standard, the majority held in this case that Petitioners’ property should be evaluated as a single parcel consisting of Lots E and F together. The Court reasoned that (1) The treatment of the property under state law indicates petitioners’ property should be treated as one when considering the effects of the restrictions; (2) the physical characteristics of the property support its treatment as a unified parcel; (3) the prospective value that Lot E brings to Lot F supports considering the two as one parcel for purposes of determining if there is a regulatory taking; and (4) the special relationship of the lots is shown by their combined valuation. Therefore, the Court held that the Wisconsin Court of Appeals was correct in analyzing petitioners’ property as a single unit.

The Court further held that, by considering Petitioners’ property as a whole, the state court was correct to conclude that petitioners cannot establish a compensable taking in these circumstances. Petitioners had not been deprived of all economically beneficial or productive use of their property (Lucas v. South Carolina Coastal Council, 505 U.S. 1003 (1992)), and they failed to establish that they suffered a taking under the more general test of Penn Central Trans. Co. v. New York City (1978) 438 U.S. 104.

In dissent, Chief Justice Roberts advocated sticking with “our traditional approach,” under which “[s]tate law defines the boundaries of distinct parcels of land, and those boundaries should determine the ‘private property’ at issue in regulatory takings cases.” Justice Roberts complained that the majority decision “knocks the definition of ‘private property’ loose from its foundation on stable state law rules and throws it into the maelstrom of multiple factors that come into play at the second step of the takings analysis.” In short, the dissent believed that the new framework established by the majority “compromises the Takings Clause as a barrier between individuals and the press of the public interest.”

Glen Hansen is a Senior Counsel at Abbott & Kindermann, Inc. For questions relating to this article or any other California land use, real estate, environmental and/or planning issues contact Abbott & Kindermann, Inc., at (916) 456-9595.

The information presented in this article should not be construed to be formal legal advice by Abbott & Kindermann, Inc., or the formation of a lawyer/client relationship. Because of the changing nature of this area of the law and the importance of individual facts, readers are encouraged to seek independent counsel for advice regarding their individual legal issues.