The Law School Authority

Lucas v. South Carolina Coastal Council Case Brief

Summary of Lucas v. South Carolina Coastal Council
505 U.S. 1003 (1992)

Procedural Posture: David Lucas purchased two vacant oceanfront lots on a barrier island near Charleston, South Carolina, with plans to develop them into single-family homes. Before Lucas purchased the lots there were no regulations affecting the building on said lots, shortly after the purchase the state passed a law restricting the development of selected portions of oceanfront property. The Lucas lots were found to be in one of the “critical areas” and construction was prohibited. Mr. Lucas filed suit in state court and won a judgment. The state appealed to the South Carolina Supreme Court, which reversed the lower court’s ruling. Lucas appealed to the United States Supreme Court and was granted certiorari.

Disposition: In a 6-3 decision, the court held in favor of Lucas, reversing the South Carolina Supreme Court decision.

Facts: In 1986, David Lucas paid $975,000 for two vacant oceanfront lots on the Isle of Palms, a barrier island near Charleston, South Carolina. Lucas purchased the lots in order to develop them into single-family homes, similar to the surrounding homes. When Lucas initially purchased the lots there where no regulations making it illegal to develop the property. However, the state of South Carolina passed the Beachfront Management Act (BMA) that made development on the Lucas property illegal. The council felt the Lucas lots where areas that were vitally important to the environment of the island.

Statute Challenged: South Carolina’s Beachfront Management Act (BMA)

Relevant Provision of Constitution: Fifth Amendment: the Taking Clause and Fourteenth Amendment.

Question Presented: Whether the BMA barring the erection of permanent structures rendered property useless and therefore compensable under the Taking Clause?

Holding: Where a state seeks to sustain a regulation that deprives land of all economically beneficial use, the state may resist an asserted right to compensation under the takings clause, on the theory that there has been no “taking,” only if the logically antecedent inquiry into the nature of the owner’s estate shows that the proscribed use interests were not part of the owner’s title to begin with, so that the severe limitation on property use is not newly legislated or decreed, but inheres in the title itself through the restrictions that background principles of the state’s law of property and nuisance already place upon land ownership; the court below therefore erred in rejecting the developer’s claim on the merits on the basis of the state legislature’s recitation of a noxious-use justification for the BMA; and the case would be remanded for a determination of the state-law question whether common-law principles would have prevented the erection of any habitable or productive improvements on the developer’s land.

Reasoning: (Scalia) Regulations that deny the property owner all “economically viable use of his land” constitute one of the discrete categories of regulatory deprivations that require compensation without the usual case-specific inquiry into the public interest advanced in support of the restraint. Total deprivation of beneficial use is the equivalent of a physical appropriation. Regulations that leave the owner of land without economically beneficial or productive options for its use– typically by requiring land to be left substantially in its natural state–carry with them a heightened risk that private property is being pressed into some form of public service under the guise of mitigating serious public harm. When the owner of real property has been called upon to sacrifice all economically beneficial uses in the name of the common good, that is, to leave his property economically idle, he has suffered a taking.

Dissent: (Blackmun) I find no clear and accepted “historical compact” or “understanding of our citizens” justifying the Court’s new takings doctrine. Instead, the Court seems to treat history as a grab bag of principles, to be adopted where they support the Court’s theory, and ignored where they do not. If the Court decided that the early common law provides the background principles for interpreting the Takings Clause, then regulation, as opposed to physical confiscation, would not be compensable. If the Court decided that the law of a later period provides the background principles, then regulation might be compensable, but the Court would have to confront the fact that legislatures regularly determined which uses were prohibited, independent of the common law, and independent of whether the uses were lawful when the owner purchased. What makes the Court’s analysis unworkable is its attempt to package the law of two incompatible eras and peddle it as historical fact.



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