Regulatory Takings: General Doctrine

prev | next
Amdt5. Regulatory Takings: General Doctrine

Fifth Amendment:

No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

Although it is established that government may take private property, with compensation, to promote the public interest, that interest also may be served by regulation of property use pursuant to the police power, and for years there was broad dicta that no one may claim damages that result from a police regulation designed to secure the common welfare, especially in the area of health and safety.1 “What distinguishes eminent domain from the police power is that the former involves the taking of property because of its need for the public use while the latter involves the regulation of such property to prevent the use thereof in a manner that is detrimental to the public interest.” 2 But regulation may deprive an owner of most or all beneficial use of his property and may destroy the values of the property for the purposes to which it is suited.3 The older cases flatly denied the possibility of compensation for this diminution of property values,4 but the Court in 1922 established as a general principle that “if regulation goes too far it will be recognized as a taking.” 5

In Mahon, Justice Holmes, for the Court, over Justice Brandeis’ vigorous dissent, held unconstitutional a state statute prohibiting subsurface mining in regions where it presented a danger of subsidence for homeowners. The homeowners had purchased by deeds that reserved to the coal companies ownership of subsurface mining rights and that held the companies harmless for damage caused by subsurface mining operations. The statute thus gave the homeowners more than they had been able to obtain through contracting, and at the same time deprived the coal companies of the entire value of their subsurface estates. The Court observed that “[f]or practical purposes, the right to coal consists in the right to mine,” and that the statute, by making it “commercially impracticable to mine certain coal,” had essentially “the same effect for constitutional purposes as appropriating or destroying it.” 6 The regulation, therefore, in precluding the companies from exercising any mining rights whatever, went “too far.” 7 However, when presented 65 years later with a very similar restriction on coal mining, the Court upheld it, pointing out that, unlike its predecessor, the newer law identified important public interests.8

The Court had been early concerned with the imposition upon one or a few individuals of the costs of furthering the public interest.9 But it was with respect to zoning, in the context of substantive due process, that the Court first experienced some difficulty in this regard. The Court’s first zoning case involved a real estate company’s challenge to a comprehensive municipal zoning ordinance, alleging that the ordinance prevented development of its land for industrial purposes and thereby reduced its value from $10,000 an acre to $2,500 an acre.10 Acknowledging that zoning was of recent origin, the Court observed that it must find its justification in the police power and be evaluated by the constitutional standards applied to exercises of the police power. After considering traditional nuisance law, the Court determined that the public interest was served by segregation of incompatible land uses and the ordinance was thus valid on its face; whether its application to diminish property values in any particular case was also valid would depend, the Court said, upon a finding that it was not “clearly arbitrary and unreasonable, having no substantial relation to the public health, safety, morals, or general welfare.” 11 A few years later the Court, again relying on due process rather than taking law, did invalidate the application of a zoning ordinance to a tract of land, finding that the tract would be rendered nearly worthless and that to exempt the tract would impair no substantial municipal interest.12 But then the Court withdrew from the land-use scene until the 1970s, giving little attention to states and their municipalities as they developed more comprehensive zoning techniques.13

As governmental regulation of property has expanded over the years—in terms of zoning and other land use controls, environmental regulations, and the like—the Court never developed, as it admitted, a “set formula to determine where regulation ends and taking begins.” 14 More recently the Court has observed that, “[i]n the near century since Mahon, the Court for the most part has refrained from elaborating this principle through definitive rules.” 15 Indeed, “[t]his area of the law has been characterized by ‘ad hoc, factual inquiries, designed to allow careful examination and weighing of all the relevant circumstances.’” 16 Nonetheless, the Court has now formulated general principles that guide many of its decisions in the area.17

In Penn Central Transportation Co. v. City of New York,18 the Court, while cautioning that regulatory takings cases require “essentially ad hoc, factual inquiries,” nonetheless laid out general guidance for determining whether a regulatory taking has occurred. “The economic impact of the regulation on the claimant and, particularly, the extent to which the regulation has interfered with distinct investment-backed expectations are . . . relevant considerations. So too, is the character of the governmental action. A ‘taking’ may more readily be found when the interference with property can be characterized as a physical invasion by government than when interference arises from some public program adjusting the benefits and burdens of economic life to promote the common good.” 19

At issue in Penn Central was the City’s landmarks preservation law, as applied to deny approval to construct a 53-story office building atop Grand Central Terminal. The Court upheld the landmarks law against Penn Central’s takings claim through application of the principles set forth above. The economic impact on Penn Central was considered: the Company could still make a “reasonable return” on its investment by continuing to use the facility as a rail terminal with office rentals and concessions, and the City specifically permitted owners of landmark sites to transfer to other sites the right to develop those sites beyond the otherwise permissible zoning restrictions, a valuable right that mitigated the burden otherwise to be suffered by the owner. As for the character of the governmental regulation, the Court found the landmarks law to be an economic regulation rather than a governmental appropriation of property, the preservation of historic sites being a permissible goal and one that served the public interest.20

Justice Holmes began his analysis in Mahon with the observation that “[g]overnment hardly could go on if to some extent values incident to property could not be diminished without paying for every . . . change in the general law,” 21 and Penn Central's economic impact standard also leaves ample room for recognition of this principle. Thus, the Court can easily hold that a mere permit requirement does not amount to a taking,22 nor does a simple recordation requirement.23 The tests become more useful, however, when compliance with regulation becomes more onerous.

Several times the Court has relied on the concept of “distinct [or, in most later cases, ‘reasonable’] investment-backed expectations” first introduced in Penn Central. In Ruckelshaus v. Monsanto Co.,24 the Court used the concept to determine whether a taking had resulted from the government’s disclosure of trade secret information submitted with applications for pesticide registrations. Disclosure of data that had been submitted from 1972 to 1978, a period when the statute guaranteed confidentiality and thus “formed the basis of a distinct investment-backed expectation,” would have destroyed the property value of the trade secret and constituted a taking.25 Following 1978 amendments setting forth conditions of data disclosure, however, applicants voluntarily submitting data in exchange for the economic benefits of registration had no reasonable expectation of additional protections of confidentiality.26 Relying less heavily on the concept but rejecting an assertion that reasonable investment backed-expectations had been upset, the Court in Connolly v. Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp.27 upheld retroactive imposition of liability for pension plan withdrawal on the basis that employers had at least constructive notice that Congress might buttress the legislative scheme to accomplish its legislative aim that employees receive promised benefits. However, where a statute imposes severe and “substantially disproportionate” retroactive liability based on conduct several decades earlier, on parties that could not have anticipated the liability, a taking (or violation of due process) may occur. On this rationale, the Court in Eastern Enterprises v. Apfel28 struck down the Coal Miner Retiree Health Benefit Act’s requirement that companies formerly engaged in mining pay miner retiree health benefits, as applied to a company that spun off its mining operation in 1965 before collective bargaining agreements included an express promise of lifetime benefits.

On the other hand, a federal ban on the sale of artifacts made from eagle feathers was sustained as applied to the existing inventory of a commercial dealer in such artifacts, the Court not directly addressing the ban’s obvious interference with investment-backed expectations.29 The Court merely noted that the ban served a substantial public purpose in protecting the eagle from extinction, that the owner still had viable economic uses for his holdings, such as displaying them in a museum and charging admission, and that he still had the value of possession.30

The Court has made plain that, in applying the economic impact and investment-backed expectations factors of Penn Central, courts are to compare what the property owner has lost through the challenged government action with what the owner retains. Discharging this mandate requires a court to define the extent of plaintiff’s property—the “parcel as a whole” —that sets the scope of analysis.31 In Murr v. Wisconsin, the Court stated that, “[l]ike the ultimate question whether a regulation has gone too far, the question of the proper parcel in regulatory takings cases cannot be solved by any simple test. Courts must instead define the parcel in a manner that reflects reasonable expectations about the property.” 32 In Murr, the owners of two small adjoining lots, previously owned separately, wished to sell one of the lots and build on the other. The landowners were prevented from doing so by state and local regulations, enacted to implement a federal act, which effectively merged the lots when they came under common ownership, thereby barring the separate sale or improvement of the lots. The landowners therefore sought just compensation, alleging a regulatory taking of their property.

In ruling against the landowners, the Supreme Court set forth a flexible multi-factor test for defining “the proper unit of property” to analyze whether a regulatory taking has occurred.33 The Court continued the approach of prior cases whereby the boundaries of the parcel determine the “denominator of the fraction” of value taken from a property by a governmental regulation, which in turn can determine whether the government has “taken” private property.34 Under this formula, regulators have an interest in a larger denominator—in the Murr case, combining the two adjoining lots—to reduce the likelihood of having to provide compensation, while property owners seeking to show that their property has been taken have an interest in the denominator being as small as possible. The Murr Court instructed that, in determining the parcel at issue in a regulatory takings case, “no single consideration can supply the exclusive test for determining the denominator. Instead, courts must consider a number of factors,” including (1) “the treatment of the land under state and local law” 35 ; (2) “the physical characteristics of the land” 36 ; and (3) “the prospective value of the regulated land.” 37

In the course of its opinion in Penn Central the Court rejected the principle that no compensation is required when regulation bans a noxious or harmful effect of land use.38 The principle, it had been contended, followed from several earlier cases, including Goldblatt v. Town of Hempstead.39 In that case, after the town had expanded around an excavation used by a company for mining sand and gravel, the town enacted an ordinance that in effect terminated further mining at the site. Declaring that no compensation was owed, the Court stated that “[a] prohibition simply upon the use of property for purposes that are declared, by valid legislation, to be injurious to the health, morals, or safety of the community, cannot, in any just sense, be deemed a taking or an appropriation of property for the public benefit. Such legislation does not disturb the owner in the control or use of his property for lawful purposes, nor restrict his right to dispose of it, but is only a declaration by the State that its use by anyone, for certain forbidden purposes, is prejudicial to the public interests.” 40 In Penn Central, however, the Court denied that there was any such test and that prior cases had turned on the concept. “These cases are better understood as resting not on any supposed ‘noxious’ quality of the prohibited uses but rather on the ground that the restrictions were reasonably related to the implementation of a policy—not unlike historic preservation—expected to produce a widespread public benefit and applicable to all similarly situated property.” 41 More recently, in Lucas v. South Carolina Coastal Council,42 the Court explained “noxious use” analysis as merely an early characterization of police power measures that do not require compensation. “[N]oxious use logic cannot serve as a touchstone to distinguish regulatory ‘takings’—which require compensation—from regulatory deprivations that do not require compensation.” 43

Mugler v. Kansas, 123 U.S. 623, 668–69 (1887). See also The Legal Tender Cases, 79 U.S. (12 Wall.) 457, 551 (1871); Chicago, B. & Q. R.R. v. City of Chicago, 166 U.S. 226, 255 (1897); Omnia Commercial Co. v. United States, 261 U.S. 502 (1923); Norman v. Baltimore & Ohio R.R., 294 U.S. 240 (1935). back
1 Nichols on Eminent Domain § 1.42 (Julius L. Sackman, 2006). back
E.g., Hadacheck v. Sebastian, 239 U.S. 394 (1915) (ordinance upheld restricting owner of brick factory from continuing his use after residential growth surrounding factory made use noxious, even though value of property was reduced by more than 90%); Miller v. Schoene, 276 U.S. 272 (1928) (no compensation due owner’s loss of red cedar trees ordered destroyed because they were infected with rust that threatened contamination of neighboring apple orchards: preferment of public interest in saving cash crop to property interest in ornamental trees was rational). back
Mugler v. Kansas, 123 U.S. 623, 668–69 (1887) (ban on manufacture of liquor greatly devalued plaintiff’s plant and machinery; no taking possible simply because of legislation deeming a use injurious to public health and welfare). back
Pennsylvania Coal Co. v. Mahon, 260 U.S. 393, 415 (1922). See also Lucas v. South Carolina Coastal Council, 505 U.S. 1003 (1992) (a regulation that deprives a property owner of all beneficial use of his property requires compensation, unless the owner’s proposed use is one prohibited by background principles of property or nuisance law existing at the time the property was acquired). back
260 U.S. at 414–15. back
260 U.S. at 415. In dissent, Justice Brandeis argued that a restriction imposed to abridge the owner’s exercise of his rights in order to prohibit a noxious use or to protect the public health and safety simply could not be a taking, because the owner retained his interest and his possession. Id. at 416. back
Keystone Bituminous Coal Ass’n v. DeBenedictis, 480 U.S. 470 (1987). back
Nashville, C. & St. L. Ry. v. Walters, 294 U.S. 405 (1935) (government may not require railroad at its own expense to separate the grade of a railroad track from that of an interstate highway). See also Panhandle Co. v. Highway Comm’n, 294 U.S. 613 (1935); Atchison, T. & S.F. Ry. v. Public Util. Comm’n, 346 U.S. 346 (1953), and compare the Court’s two decisions in Georgia Ry. & Electric Co. v. City of Decatur, 295 U.S. 165 (1935), and 297 U.S. 620 (1936). back
Village of Euclid v. Ambler Realty Co., 272 U.S. 365 (1926). back
272 U.S. at 395. See also Zahn v. Board of Pub. Works, 274 U.S. 325 (1927). back
Nectow v. City of Cambridge, 277 U.S. 183 (1928). back
Initially, the Court’s return to the land-use area involved substantive due process, not takings. Village of Belle Terre v. Boraas, 416 U.S. 1 (1974) (sustaining single-family zoning as applied to group of college students sharing a house); Moore v. City of East Cleveland, 431 U.S. 494 (1977) (voiding single-family zoning so strictly construed as to bar a grandmother from living with two grandchildren of different children). See also City of Eastlake v. Forest City Enterprises, 426 U.S. 668 (1976). back
Penn Central Transp. Co. v. City of New York, 438 U.S. 104, 124 (1978). The phrase appeared first in Goldblatt v. Town of Hempstead, 369 U.S. 590, 594 (1962). back
Murr v. Wisconsin 137 S. Ct. 1933, 1942 (2017) (rejecting the argument of the owners of two adjoining undeveloped lots that a regulatory taking occurred through the enactment of regulations that forbade improvment or seperate sale of the lots). back
Id. (quoting Tahoe-Sierra Pres. Council, Inc. v. Tahoe Reg'l Planning Agency 535 U.S. 302, 322 (2002)). back
While observing that the “central dynamic of the Court’s regulatory takings jurisprudence . . . is its flexibility,” the Court in Murr v. Wisconsin reiterated the “two guidelines . . . for determining when government regulation is so onerous that it constitutes a taking.” Id. at 1942. First, with some qualifications, “‘a regulation which denies all economically beneficial or productive use of land will require compensation under the Takings Clause.’” Id. (quoting Palazzolo v. Rhode Island, 533 U.S. 606, 617 (2001)). Second, if “a regulation impedes the use of property without depriving the owner of all economically beneficial use, a taking still may be found based on ‘a complex of factors,’ including (1) the economic impact of the regulation on the claimant; (2) the extent to which the regulation has interfered with distinct investment-backed expectations; and (3) the character of the governmental action.” Id. at 1942–43(quoting Palazzolo, 533 U.S. at 617). back
438 U.S. 104 (1978). Justices Rehnquist and Stevens and Chief Justice Burger dissented. Id. at 138. back
438 U.S. at 124 (citations omitted). back
438 U.S. at 124–28, 135–38. back
260 U.S. at 413. back
United States v. Riverside Bayview Homes, 474 U.S. 121 (1985) (requirement that permit be obtained for filling privately-owned wetlands is not a taking, although permit denial resulting in prevention of economically viable use of land may be). back
Texaco v. Short, 454 U.S. 516 (1982) (state statute deeming mineral claims lapsed upon failure of putative owners to take prescribed steps is not a taking); United States v. Locke, 471 U.S. 84 (1985) (reasonable regulation of recordation of mining claim is not a taking). back
467 U.S. 986 (1984). back
467 U.S. at 1011. back
467 U.S. at 1006–07. Similarly, disclosure of data submitted before the confidentiality guarantee was placed in the law did not frustrate reasonable expectations, the Trade Secrets Act merely protecting against “unauthorized” disclosure. Id. at 1008–10. back
475 U.S. 211 (1986). Accord, Concrete Pipe & Products v. Construction Laborers Pension Trust, 508 U.S. 602, 645–46 (1993). In addition, see Kaiser Aetna v. United States, 444 U.S. 164, 179 (1979) (involving frustration of “expectancies” developed through improvements to private land and governmental approval of permits), and PruneYard Shopping Center v. Robins, 447 U.S. 74, 84 (1980) (characterizing and distinguishing Kaiser Aetna as involving interference with “reasonable investment backed expectations” ). back
524 U.S. 498 (1998). The split doctrinal basis of Eastern Enterprises undercuts its precedent value, and that of Connolly and Concrete Pipe, for takings law. A majority of the justices (one supporting the judgment and four dissenters) found substantive due process, not takings law, to provide the analytical framework where, as in Eastern Enterprises, the gravamen of the complaint is the unfairness and irrationality of the statute, rather than its economic impact. back
Andrus v. Allard, 444 U.S. 51 (1979). back
Similarly, the Court in Goldblatt had pointed out that the record contained no indication that the mining prohibition would reduce the value of the property in question. 369 U.S. at 594. Contrast Hodel v. Irving, 481 U.S. 704 (1987), where the Court found insufficient justification for a complete abrogation of the right to pass on to heirs interests in certain fractionated property. Note as well the differing views expressed in Irving as to whether that case limits Andrus v. Allard to its facts. Id. at 718 (Justice Brennan concurring, 719 (Justice Scalia concurring). See also the suggestion in Lucas v. South Carolina Coastal Council, 505 U.S. 1003, 1027–28 (1992), that Allard may rest on a distinction between permissible regulation of personal property, on the one hand, and real property, on the other. back
The “parcel as a whole” analysis refers to the precept that takings law “does not divide a single parcel into discrete segments and attempt to determine whether rights in a particular segment have been entirely abrogated.” Penn Central, 438 U.S. at 130; see also Concrete Pipe & Prods. of Cal., Inc. v. Constr. Laborers Pension Tr., 508 U.S. 602, 644 (1993); Keystone Bituminous Coal Ass’n v. DeBenedictis, 480 U.S. 470, 497 (1987). In Tahoe-Sierra Preservation Council v. Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, the Court affirmed the established spatial dimension of the doctrine, under which the court must consider the entire relevant tract, as well as the functional dimension, under which the court must consider plaintiff’s full bundle of rights. See 535 U.S. 302, 327 (2002). The spatial dimension is perhaps best illustrated by the analysis in Penn Central, wherein the Court declined to segment Grand Central Terminal from the air rights above it. 438 U.S. at 130. And the functional dimension of the parcel as a whole is demonstrated by the Court’s refusal in Andrus v. Allard to segment one “stick” in the plaintiff’s “bundle” of property rights in holding that denial of the right to sell Indian artifacts was not a taking in light of rights in the artifacts that were retained. 444 U.S. 51, 65–66 (1979). In Tahoe-Sierra, the Court also added a temporal dimension to the “parcel as a whole” analysis, under which a court considers the entire time span of plaintiff’s property interest. Invoking this temporal dimension, the Court held that temporary land-use development moratoria do not effect a total elimination of use because use and value return in the period following the moratorium’s expiration. Tahoe-Sierra, 535 U.S. at 327. Thus, such moratoria are to be analyzed under the ad hoc, multifactor Penn Central test, rather than a per se “total takings” approach. back
Murr v. Wisconsin, 137 S. Ct. 1933, 1950 (2017) (internal citation omitted) (emphasis added). back
Id. at 1943–46. In doing so, the Court rejected arguments for the adoption of “a formalistic rule to guide the parcel inquiry,” one that would “tie the definition of the parcel to state law.” See id. at 1946. back
Id. at 1944 ( “[B]ecause our test for regulatory taking requires us to compare the value that has been taken from the property with the value that remains in the property, one of the critical questions is determining how to define the unit of property ‘whose value is to furnish the denominator of the fraction.’ As commentators have noted, the answer to this question may be outcome determinative.” (quoting Keystone, 480 U.S. at 497)). back
Id. at 1945 ( “[C]ourts should give substantial weight to the treatment of the land, in particular how it is bounded or divided, under state and local law.” ). back
Id. ( “[C]ourts must look to the physical characteristics of the landowner’s property. These include the physical relationship of any distinguishable tracts, the parcel’s topography, and the surrounding human and ecological environment. In particular, it may be relevant that the property is located in an area that is subject to, or likely to become subject to, environmental or other regulation.” ). back
Id. at 1945, 1946 ( “[C]ourts should assess the value of the property under the challenged regulation, with special attention to the effect of burdened land on the value of other holdings.” ). back
The dissent was based upon this test. Penn Central, 438 U.S. at 144–46. back
369 U.S. 590 (1962). Hadacheck v. Sebastian, 239 U.S. 394 (1915), and, perhaps, Miller v. Schoene, 276 U.S. 272 (1928), also fall under this heading, although Schoene may also be assigned to the public peril line of cases. back
369 U.S. at 593 (quoting Mugler v. Kansas, 123 U.S. 623, 668–69 (1887)). The Court posited a two-part test. First, the interests of the public required the interference, and, second, the means were reasonably necessary for the accomplishment of the purpose and were not unduly oppressive of the individual. 369 U.S. at 595. The test was derived from Lawton v. Steele, 152 U.S. 133, 137 (1894) (holding that state officers properly destroyed fish nets that were banned by state law in order to preserve certain fisheries from extinction). back
Penn Central, 438 U.S. at 133–34 n.30. back
505 U.S. 1003 (1992). back
505 U.S. at 1026. The Penn Central majority also rejected the dissent’s contention, 438 U.S. at 147–50, that regulation of property use constitutes a taking unless it spreads its distribution of benefits and burdens broadly so that each person burdened has at the same time the enjoyment of the benefit of the restraint upon his neighbors. The Court deemed it immaterial that the landmarks law has a more severe impact on some landowners than on others: “Legislation designed to promote the general welfare commonly burdens some more than others.” Id. at 133–34. back

The following state regulations pages link to this page.