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Law School Case Brief

Lucas v. S.C. Coastal Council - 505 U.S. 1003, 112 S. Ct. 2886 (1992)


At least two discrete categories exist of regulatory action as compensable without case-specific inquiry into the public interest advanced in support of the restraint. The first encompasses regulations that compel the property owner to suffer a physical invasion of his property. In general (at least with regard to permanent invasions), no matter how minute the intrusion, and no matter how weighty the public purpose behind it, the Supreme Court of the United States has required compensation. The second situation in which the Supreme Court of the United States has found categorical treatment appropriate is where regulation denies all economically beneficial or productive use of land. 


Under 1977 legislation, the state of South Carolina required owners of certain "critical area" coastal-zone land to obtain a permit from defendant South Carolina Coastal Council ("Council") before changing the use of the land. In 1986, plaintiff David Lucas, a real estate developer, purchased two lots on a barrier island; the lots did not then qualify as a "critical area" and were zoned for single-family residential construction. Lucas made plans to erect residences on the lots. In 1988, however, the state enacted a Beachfront Management Act (BMA), which established a new baseline on the island and prohibited any construction of occupable improvements seaward of a line parallel to and 20 feet landward of the baseline, thereby barring Lucas' plans. Lucas filed suit in state court against the Council contending that the BMA's complete extinguishment of the value of his property effected a "taking" of the property for which he was entitled to just compensation; Lucas did not challenge the validity of the BMA as an exercise of the state's police power. The trial court found that the BMA decreed a permanent ban on construction on Lucas' lots, where there had been no restrictions on such use before, and had thereby deprived him of any reasonable economic use of the lots, rendering the lots valueless. Accordingly, the court ordered the Council to pay just compensation of more than $ 1.2 million. While the case was pending before the Supreme Court of South Carolina, the BMA was amended to authorize the Council, in certain circumstances, to issue special permits for construction of habitable structures seaward of the baseline. The Supreme Court of South Carolina, reversing the trial court's judgment, held that: (1) in the absence of an attack on the validity of the BMA as such, the court was bound to accept the state legislature's uncontested findings that new construction in the coastal zone threatened a public resource; and (2) when a regulation respecting the use of property was designed to prevent serious public harm, no compensation was owed regardless of the regulation's effect on the property's value.


Was Lucas entitled to just compensation from the State as a result of a taking within the meaning of the Federal Constitution's Fifth Amendment?




The Supreme Court of the United States held that the decision was ripe for review, even though the BMA had been amended to allow the issuance of special permits and even though Court precedents reflected an insistence on knowing the nature and extent of permitted development before adjudicating the constitutionality of regulations purporting to limit such development, because although the above considerations would preclude review had the court below rested its judgment on ripeness grounds, that court had instead disposed of Lucas' claim on the merits. The Court held that where a state sought to sustain a regulation that deprived land of all economically beneficial use, the state may resist an asserted right to compensation under the takings clause, on the theory that there had been no "taking," only if the logically antecedent inquiry into the nature of the owner's estate shows that the proscribed use interests were not part of the owner's title to begin with, so that the severe limitation on property use was not newly legislated or decreed, but inhered in the title itself through the restrictions that background principles of the state's law of property and nuisance already place upon land ownership. The Court concluded that the lower court erred in rejecting Lucas' claim on the merits on the basis of the state legislature's recitation of a noxious-use justification for the BMA. The case was remanded for a determination of the state-law question whether common-law principles would have prevented the erection of any habitable or productive improvements on Lucas' land.

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