WASHINGTON - States must compensate landowners when state regulations render land economically useless, the Supreme Court said yesterday as it closed out its 1991-1992 term.
The court, ruling in Lucas v. South Carolina Coastal Council, said the only way states can avoid providing compensation in such cases is by showing that the regulations covered land uses that were never intended for the property.
"Where the state seeks to sustain regulation that deprives land of all economically beneficial use, we think it may resist compensation only if" the state can show that its prohibitions covered uses that were "not part of [the landowner's] title to begin with," Justice Scalia wrote for the court's 6-to-3 majority.
In so ruling, the court rejected the claim of South Carolina that land titles are subject to the "implied limitation" that states may eliminate all economically valuable use of land.
Lawyers for state and local governments, however, said the court's ruling was narrow and is unlikely to have a major effect on state coffers.
"First, the ruling applies only to land and the regulation of land," said one lawyer, who requested anonymity. "Second, it only applies when all economic value is taken away. It appears the decision has quite a limited impact."
But properly rights advocates lauded the ruling.
"The Lucas decision firmly establishes the principle that environmental laws which require the property owner to leave property in its natural state - and thus deny the owner all economical viable use - constitutes a taking of property," said Paul D. Kamenar, a lawyer with the conservative Washington Legal Foundation.
"While the court's property rights decisions this term were rather lackluster, this is the one bright jewel that advances property rights principles," he continued.
According to the court majority, states are not without power to prevent certain uses of land. Justice Scalia noted that the owner of a lake bed, for example, "would not be entitled to compensation when he is denied the requisite permit to engage in a landfilling operation that would have the effect of flooding other's land. Nor the corporate owner of a nuclear generating plant, when it is directed to remove all improvements from its land upon discovery that the plant sits astride an earthquake fault."
Justice Scalia said that though such regulatory actions eliminate the land's only productive uses, they do not prohibit uses that were "previously permissible under relevant property and nuisance principles."
The case arose in 1986 when David H. Lucas bought two residential lots on a barrier island east of Charleston, S.C. Mr. Lucas intended to build single-family homes on the beachfront properties.
But in 1988, the South Carolina Legislature approved a law that had the effect of prohibiting Mr. Lucas from building the homes. The law, the Beachfront Management Act, was enacted to protect the state's beaches.
Mr. Lucas filed suit, claiming the law affected a taking of private property under the Constitution's Fifth and 14th amendments.
The Fifth Amendment prohibits the federal government from taking private property for public use "without just compensation." The 14th Amendment extends the ban to state governments.
A state trial court ruled in favor or Mr. Lucas and said he was entitled to compensation, but the state supreme court reversed the decision. According to the South Carolina Supreme Court, when regulations on the use of private property are designed "to prevent serious public harm," no compensation is owed regardless of the regulations' effect on property value.
In yesterday's ruling, the court majority said that whether Mr. Lucas's planned single-family residences should be deemed harmful to the state depends on one's perspective.
Justice Harry A. Blackmun issued a forceful dissent, saying, "Today the court launches a missile to kilo a mouse." According to Justice Blackmun, the court adopted sweeping new rules in a case it should not have reviewed.
"If the state legislature is correct that the prohibition on building- ... prevents serious harm, then, under this court's prior cases, the act is constitutional," Justice Blackmun said.
Justice Blackmun also took aim at the trial court's finding that the state regulation made Mr. Lucas's land valueless. "Petitioner still can enjoy other attributes of ownership, such as the right to exclude others, one of the most essential sticks in the bundle of rights that are commonly characterized as property," he said. "Petitioner can picnic, swim, camp in a tent, or live on the property in a movable trailer."
Justice John Paul Stevens also dissented, saying that even if Mr. Lucas's land was made valueless by the state regulation, "the compelling purpose motivating the South Carolina Legislature persuade me that the act did not effect a taking of petitioner's property."
Justice David H. Souter wrote separately to say that, in his opinion, the court should not have reviewed the case. He said the issues decided by the court were not presented in the case.
In other action yesterday, the court:
* Upheld the continued viability of its 1973 ruling in Roe v. Wade protecting a woman's right to obtain an abortion. Ruling in a case from Pennsylvania, the court said women have a fundamental right to get abortions up to the point of fetal viability, a point at which a fetus can survive outside the womb.
* Agreed to decide whether federal statutes and regulations relating to railroad-highway grade crossings preempt state law challenges against railroads based on their alleged failure to design and maintain reasonably safe crossings.
* Declined to review a federal appeals court ruling invalidating California statutes limiting campaign contributions. The statutes were struck down as violations of the Constitution's First and 14th amendments. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and Justice Byron R. White said the court should have reviewed the matter.