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Lucas v. South Carolina Coastal Council


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505 U.S. 1003 (1992), argued 2 March 1992, decided 29 June 1992 by vote of 6 to 2; Scalia for the Court, Kennedy, concurring in the judgment, Blackmun and Stevens, dissenting. Souter filed a statement asserting certiorari improvidently granted. David H. Lucas bought two residential beachfront lots for $975,000 in 1986. Two years later, a new Beachfront Management Act (BMA) barred construction of any permanent habitable structures on the lots. A state trial court held that the lots were rendered “valueless” and had been “taken” by operation of the act. This finding was not disturbed when the South Carolina Supreme Court rejected the takings claim on grounds that it was bound to accept the legislature's determination that the BMA was designed to protect the state's beaches.

Justice Antonin Scalia reviewed Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes's exposition in Pennsylvania Coal Co. v. Mahon (1922) that a regulation would constitute a compensable taking when it went “too far,” and also the Court's decision to apply this test through “essentially ad hoc, factual inquiries” in Penn Central Transportation Co. v. City of New York (1978). Scalia noted that the Court had eschewed ad hoc balancing of interests where there was a permanent physical invasion of land, as in Loretto v. Teleprompter Manhattan CATV Corp. (1982), or where the regulation denied all economically beneficial or productive use of land as in Agins v. City of Tiburon (1980).

Lucas deemed the Agins rule supported by the fact that “total deprivation of beneficial use is, from the landowner's point of view, the equivalent of a physical appropriation” (p. 1017). Regulations compelling that land be left in its natural state carry a “heightened risk that private property is being pressed into some form of public service under the guise of mitigating serious public harm” (p. 1018). In addition, the fact that any land regulation inevitably affects property values becomes less pressing in “the relatively rare situations where the government has deprived a landowner of all economically beneficial uses” (p. 1018). The opinion also noted that no compensation would be required if the regulations that deprives land of all economically beneficial use “inhere in… the restrictions that background principles of the State's law of property and nuisance already place upon land ownership” (p. 1029).

The left has criticized Lucas for countenancing conventional zoning while disabling ecoshed protection. The right has criticized Lucas forfailing to define the “relevant parcel” taken, thus permitting government to take all value in a small area while asserting that the landowner has remaining value in other parts of the parcel.

The Court has stringently cabined Lucas, holding that it is not applicable where one house might be built on eighteen acres of land, in Palazzolo v. Rhode Island (2001), or where development is not barred permanently, but rather by an extended moratorium, in Tahoe-Sierra Preservation Council, Inc. v. Tahoe Regional Planning Agency (2002). Sweeping regulations increasingly are defended on the grounds that they embody longstanding “background principles” favoring the environment.

Steven J. Eagle

Subjects: Law.


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