PE CoffeeHaus Blog

Fla. Gov’t Says Pay for This, Maybe We’ll Give You That

January 30, 2013

In multiple PE CoffeeHaus discussions, Pollution Engineering’s Roy Bigham wrote about one Idahoan family’s fight against the EPA to build a dream home on what the agency had deemed as protected wetlands. You can find his posts about the Sackets here and here.

It seems that stories concerning dream projects and wetlands are never-ending. Enter Florida’s Koontz family.

Coy Koontz Sr. had a plan when he bought 14.9 acres east of Orlando, Fla., but it didn’t include having his son end up at the U.S. Supreme Court.

In the 1970s, Coy Koontz bought a parcel of land, the majority of which would later be classified a wetland. When he sought a permit to develop a portion of it in the 1990s, the Florida environmental agency in charge of the area said Koontz would need to take steps to remediate the damage he would cause.

Fox News does a (surprisingly) good job of summing up the issues here.

Now, after 18 years of legal wrangling, the outcome of the case before the Supreme Court will influence the power of government to impose certain monetary conditions before granting land-use permits.

Faced with the inability to develop the land, along with a continuing property tax obligation, the Koontz family sold the parcel.

Admittedly, the government needs to have a vested interest in protecting threatened habitats. As such, developments in those habitats often come with a hefty price tag.

And there is the crux of the problem before the highest court in the land: a government agency that refuses a land-use permit because the property owner declines to pay certain fees has essentially taken the property.

It is even more disgusting when we see why the permits were denied in the Koontz case. Citing the loss of valuable wetlands, water district officials told Koontz Sr. in 1994 that he also would have to offer additional mitigation; for instance, by paying to restore about 50 acres of district land elsewhere. He refused, so the district rejected his permit application. He sued.

The issue over the definition of wetlands has long been a contention between the public and the EPA. The EPA has also been in contention with the Army Corps of Engineers over what agency should have control over the issue.

On one hand, this is a case for protecting the common good by not allowing development on land that drains into water supply and recharge areas. No one forced the property owner to buy this land.

On the other hand, an extortionate demand on permit applicants amounts to, essentially, a “taking” of said land. If we view the case in that way, it is a clear violation of the U.S. Constitution’s Fifth Amendment: “nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”

Management District officials all but admitted extortion in a pretrial stipulation that “the exact project [he] proposed would have been permitted” if Koontz had paid for improvements to the agency’s other land.

Koontz agreed to demands on his own land, but refused to spend money for improvements to other district-owned land that had no connection to his land or relation to his proposal. With his permit being rejected, he ultimately has unusable land.

No matter how this case turns out, Koontz Sr. absolutely should have done due diligence and sought an engineer’s opinion.

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