Epstein on Koontz (#UChiLawSCt)

Koontz v. St. Johns River Water Management District: Of Issues Resolved--and Shoved under the Table
Richard A. Epstein
June 26, 2013

The Supreme Court's five-to-four decision in favor of the landowners in Koontz v. St. Johns River Water Management District counts as a victory of sorts for the property rights movement. The case involved an all-too common exercise of state permit power. Koontz had applied for a permit to develop some 3.7 acres of his waterfront property and for that privilege he was prepared to offer the state a conservation easement that would make it impossible for him to develop the remaining 11 acres of that parcel. The official reply was that the permit would be denied unless Koontz acceded to one of two conditions. By the first, he had to agree to cut down the site development to one-acre and to make other costly modifications to his project. By the second, the District requested that he hire, for an uncertain sum, contractors to replace culverts or fill in ditches on other parts of the land. Koontz balked; the District stuck to its guns, and nothing happened. In his subsequent law suit, Koontz claimed that the exactions imposed by the District offended the various tests for an appropriate nexus between the permit and condition that had been developed in the important Supreme Court cases of Nollan v. California Coastal Commission (1987) and Dolan v. City of Tigard (1994).

Harms v. Benefits

One unfortunate aspect about this case was that Koontz, bending to the current legal realities, had been prepared in his application to deed over some portion of his land to the Water District to get the permit in the first place. But the antecedent question is why he should be required to make any such concession in the first place. In dealing with this issue, Dolan put the right framework on the question by insisting that the condition in question be linked to either a benefit that the state provided or to a harm that the developer's project would create--in that instance additional runoff into public waters.

The implicit subtext of the Koontz application was that the failure to mitigate so-called environmental damage counts as a harm which the Water District is entitled to redress without compensation. But there is no reason why that should be the case. In dealing with the harm/benefit distinction in other private law contexts, it is clear that the operative distinction runs as follows. The defendant engages in harm to the world when he pollutes it. The state demands a benefit from the landowner such as insisting that the land be used as a nature preserve. It ties the English language into impossible knots to say that the defendant harms any plaintiff to whom he does not supply a benefit. That would mean that all landowners harm their neighbors by refusing to allow them to graze their cattle in the fields or to bed down at night on the front lawn. And it would mean that every person in the world has conferred a benefit on all individuals whom they do not summarily execute or rob. It is only if the terms "harm" and "benefit" are placed within a coherent framework of preexisting property rights that they can be used in a coherent sense that makes legal intervention the exception for a targeted case, not a universal imperative in any case where any landowner attempts any development at all.

Richard A. Epstein