Suitum v. Tahoe Regional Planning Agency (96-243), 520 U.S. 725 (1997)
[ Scalia ]
[ Souter ]
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NOTE: Where it is feasible, a syllabus (headnote) will be released, as is being done in connection with this case, at the time the opinion is issued. The syllabus constitutes no part of the opinion of the Court but has been prepared by the Reporter of Decisions for the convenience of the reader. See United States v. Detroit Timber & Lumber Co., 200 U.S. 321, 337.




certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the ninth circuit

No. 96-243. Argued February 26, 1997 -- Decided May 27, 1997

Petitioner Suitum owns an undeveloped lot near Lake Tahoe. Respondent Tahoe Regional Planning Agency determined that the lot is ineligible for development under agency regulations, but that Suitum is entitled to receive certain allegedly valuable "Transferable Development Rights" (TDRs) that she can sell to other landowners with the agency's approval. Suitum did not seek those rights, but instead brought this action for compensation under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claiming that the agency's determinations amounted to a regulatory taking of her property without just compensation in violation of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. The District Court held that her claim is not ripe for adjudication because she has not attempted to sell her TDRs, so that their specific values are unknown and the court could not realistically assess whether the agency's regulations have frustrated her reasonable expectations. The Ninth Circuit agreed and affirmed, reasoning, inter alia, that action on a TDR transfer application would be the requisite "final decision" by the agency regarding its regulations' application to Suitum's lot.

Held: Suitum's regulatory taking claim is ripe for adjudication. Pp. 6-18.

(a) Suitum must satisfy the prudential ripeness principle requiring that she receive a "final decision" from the agency regarding the application of its regulations to her property. Williamson County Regional Planning Comm'n v. Hamilton Bank of Johnson City, 473 U.S. 172, 186. Pp. 6-7.

(b) The Ninth Circuit's rationale for holding Suitum's claim unripe--that she had failed to obtain a final and authoritative agency decision--is unsupported by this Court's precedents. See, e.g., Williamson County, supra, at 191, 193; MacDonald, Sommer & Frates v. Yolo County, 477 U.S. 340, 349. These precedents make two points clear about the finality requirement: it applies to decisions about how a taking plaintiff's particular parcel may be used, see, e.g., Williamson County, supra, at 191, and it responds to the high degree of discretion characteristically possessed by land use boards in softening the strictures of the general regulations they administer, see e.g., MacDonald, supra, at 350. Suitum's claim satisfies the demand for finality. It is undisputed that the agency has finally determined that her land lies entirely within a zone in which development is not permitted. Because the agency has no discretion to exercise over her right to use her land, no occasion exists for applying Williamson County's requirement that a landowner take steps to obtain a final decision about the use that will be permitted on the particular parcel. Although the parties contest the relevance of the TDRs to the question whether a taking has occurred, resolution of that legal issue will require no further agency action of the sort demanded by Williamson County. Pp. 8-13.

(c) Contrary to the lower courts' holdings, action on a possible application by Suitum to transfer her TDRs is not the type of "final decision" required by the Court's Williamson County precedents. Although those precedents dealt with land, not TDRs, such a decision might be required, given the agency's position that TDRs should be considered when determining whether a taking has occurred, if there were any question here whether Suitum would obtain a discretionary award of saleable TDRs. No such question is presented, however, since the parties agree on the particular TDRs to which Suitum is entitled, and no discretionary decision must be made by any agency official for her to obtain them or to offer them for sale. P. 13.

(d) The agency's argument that Suitum's case is not ripe because no values attributable to her TDRs are known is just a variation on the preceding position, and fares no better. First, as to her rights to receive TDRs that she may later sell, little or no uncertainty remains. Second, as to her right to transfer her TDRs, the only contingency apart from private market demand turns on the right of the agency or a local regulatory body to deny approval for a specific transfer based on the buyer's intended improper use of the TDRs. However, because the agency does not deny that there are many potential lawful buyers whose receipt of the TDRs would unquestionably be approved, the TDRs' valuation is simply an issue of fact about possible market prices, on which the District Court had considerable evidence. Similar determinations are routinely made by courts without the benefit of a market transaction in the subject property. Pp. 14-16.

(e) The agency's argument that Suitum's claim is unripe under the-fitness for review" requirement of Abbott Laboratories v. Gardner, 387 U.S. 136, 148-149, is rejected. Abbott Laboratories is not on point because the petitioners there were challenging the validity of a regulation as beyond the scope of its issuing agency's authority, whereas Suitum seeks not to invalidate the regulations here at issue, but to be paid for their consequences. Indeed, to the extent that Abbott Laboratories is in any sense instructive in the disposition of this case, it cuts directly against the agency: Suitum is just as definitively barred from taking any affirmative step to develop her land as the petitioners there, who prevailed against the contention that their claim was unripe, were bound to take affirmative steps to comply with the regulations they were challenging. Pp. 16-18.

80 F. 3d 359, vacated and remanded.

Souter, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Rehnquist, C. J., and Stevens, Kennedy, Ginsburg, and Breyer, JJ., joined, and in which O'Connor, Scalia, and Thomas, JJ., joined except as to Parts II-B and II-C. Scalia, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment, in which O'Connor and Thomas, JJ., joined.