Given that the United States once set global precedents for environmental protection and physical planning, it is hard to grasp just how far we have fallen. The U.S. Supreme Court, though, has now made the reversal clear. In a “A Legal Blow to Sustainable Development,” the New York Times details the impact of the latest blockbuster court decision on planning.
In simple terms, the Koontz vs St. Johns Water Management District case involved a development permit decision. The developer, Koontz, applied for a permit to build a small shopping center, and his plan included filling three acres of wetlands. In a common negotiation practice, the water management district suggested changes to Koontz’s plan that would make it more likely that his permit would be approved. Koontz could either reduce the size of his development, or he could pay a fee for wetland restoration elsewhere and proceed to fill the wetlands on his own property. Koontz refused to negotiate, and the water management district denied his permit. Koontz sued, and the case went all the way up to the Florida Supreme Court which sided with the water management district. Koontz has since died, but his case went on from Florida to the U.S. Supreme Court. Yesterday, the justices delivered a 5/4 decision to reverse the Florida Supreme Court’s decision. In this blockbuster decision, Koontz has achieved a measure of immortality.
From the Times:
Lost amid the Supreme Court’s high-profile decisions on affirmative action, voting rights and same-sex marriage was another ruling that may turn out to have a profound impact on American society. The court handed down a decision on Tuesday that, in the words of Justice Elena Kagan, will “work a revolution in land-use law.”
While that may sound obscure, the decision in Koontz v. St. Johns River Water Management District will result in long-lasting harm to America’s communities. That’s because the ruling creates a perverse incentive for municipal governments to reject applications from developers rather than attempt to negotiate project designs that might advance both public and private goals — and it makes it hard for communities to get property owners to pay to mitigate any environmental damage they may cause.
As for implications:
As Justice Kagan correctly explains in her dissent, the decision will very likely encourage local government officials to avoid any discussion with developers related to permit conditions that, in the end, might have let both sides find common ground on building projects that are good for the community and environmentally sound. Rather than risk a lawsuit through an attempt at compromise, many municipalities will simply reject development applications outright — or, worse, accept development plans they shouldn’t.