A Wisconsin family has had to appeal all the way to the United States Supreme Court to get permission to sell or build on property they have paid taxes on for decades.
The family, the Murrs, are trying to get fair compensation on a rural river-front property that government regulators say they cannot sell. The Murrs claim the land along the St. Croix River is valued at $698,000.
The family actually owns two pieces of land along the river: the vacant lot and an adjacent lot where a cabin resides. Although the family long has considered the two pieces of property separate – they pay separate property bills and have considered the vacant lot an investment property – authorities merged the two against the family’s wishes, and then said they could not split them, Watchdog.org reported.
St. Croix County collected taxes on the lots, separately, for years. The Murrs, in fact, say they paid $78,000 more in property taxes than they should have if the county’s $40,000 assessment is correct.
New regulations in the mid-1970s limited construction along the river, but because the properties were bought in the 1960, they were grandfathered, the Leader-Telegram reported. If any other family had owned the plot of land, they could build on it. But because the same family owns both plots, the Murrs are limited in what they can do.
New county regulations that didn’t exist when the property initially was bought say that a plot of land must have one acre of buildable area in order to be sold or developed. The vacant lot is less than that.
The case may seem complicated but involves a simple question: Can the government combine two adjacent lots against a family’s wishes, and then prevent them from selling one of them?
The Supreme Court will hear the case this fall. The Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF) is representing the family.
“In short, when [the vacant lot] was created in 1959, and purchased in 1963, it was of sufficient size, width, and zoning to allow development of a single family house. Indeed, that is the use allowed for all the parcels within the St. Croix Cove Subdivision. However, because of the restrictions that came into place … the parcel was now defined as ‘substandard,’” PLF attorneys wrote in a petition to the Supreme Court.
John M. Groen, the principal attorney for the Pacific Legal Foundation, said that “everyone who values property rights should welcome the court’s decision to hear this important case,”
“This litigation asks whether government can get away with telling property owners, in essence, ‘The more land you own, the less we’ll allow you to use,’” Groen said. “We’re challenging a practice that is all too common among land use regulators, where they tell a landowner she can’t use her property, based on the excuse that she also happens to own a neighboring parcel.
“In other words, bureaucrats will treat two, legally distinct parcels, as if they were one unified parcel, so they can prohibit all development on one of the parcels without providing compensation as required by the Fifth Amendment,” Groen added. “As we will argue to the Supreme Court, this kind of regulatory sleight of hand cannot be permitted if the Constitution’s Takings Clause is to be respected.”
The takings clause is the portion of the Fifth Amendment that states: “nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.” The Foundation is arguing that St. Croix County and the state violated the clause by merging the lots and then by not offering just compensation.
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