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Koontz v. St. Johns Water Management case finally over after 22 years

By Karen Kidd | Apr 12, 2016

TALLAHASSEE – After 22 years in the courts, including a trip to the U.S. Supreme Court, the "takings" case of Koontz v. St. Johns Water Management is all but over, a Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF) spokeswoman said.

The case began in 1994 when Coy A. Koontz wanted to develop his property and requested the required permit from St. Johns River Water Management. Koontz already had a permit but decided to develop more of his property than was allowed by the original permit. St. Johns' issuance of the permit was predicated on Koontz deeding the remainder of his property into a conservation area and to also provide some mitigation work on the surrounding areas. Koontz did not agree to the mitigation work, though he did agree to the deed, and St. Johns denied his permit application.

Koontz filed suit against St. Johns River Water Management. The initial trial court found in favor of Koontz, finding that St. John's River Water Management had effected a taking of Koontz's land. The trial court awarded Koontz $376,154 in damages, ruling that St. John's requirements for a permit was warranted only if those requirements serve the same governmental purpose as would a ban on development.

Florida's 5th District Court of Appeal affirmed that decision, but the Florida Supreme Court reversed the appeal court decision.

The case achieved its climax in 2013 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that land-use agencies cannot impose conditions for issuing development unless they comply with the "nexus" and "rough proportionality" standards defined in Nollan v. California Coastal Commission and Dolan v. City of Tigard. Those standards must be met even if the condition demanded is money and even if the permit is denied for failure to agree to the condition.

Koontz v. St. Johns Water Management was the first case in which monetary exactions were found to be an unconstitutional condition, thus making it an important case to be studied and cited.

The case is mostly over now, Christina M. Martin, a staff attorney in PLF's Atlantic Center in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, said in an email interview with the Florida Record.

 "The Koontz family has now been paid," Martin said. "However the question of attorney fees and costs will still have to [be] determined."

That would be a surprise to many, even those who cite the well-known case in their own litigation, in large part because the case hasn't gotten much coverage since the Supreme Court ruling in 2013.

"Most people probably assume that once a plaintiff has won in the Supreme Court that the case is over," Martin said. "Koontz was decided in June 2013. Most people would probably be surprised to find out that it took well over two years to get Mr. Koontz the damages that a trial court determined he was entitled to many years before."

That was hardly the best outcome, especially since the original litigant died before the case even reached the U.S. Supreme Court and was carried on by his son.

"The best possible outcome would have been for the government to concede its error and pay Mr. Koontz voluntarily, instead of fighting every step of the way," Martin said. "But in light of the government’s refusal to show due respect to the Fifth Amendment and the unconstitutional conditions doctrine, we are very happy with this outcome."

Koontz's side of the case has been heard by Pacific Legal Foundation, a not-for-profit law firm with libertarian leanings and a strong advocacy for private property rights.

In February, the Florida Supreme Court declined the government's request to reconsider the case and let stand an appellate decision on remand from the U.S. Supreme Court. It's possible Florida might ask the U.S. Supreme Court to consider the case a second time, but legal observers opine that isn't likely.

One lesson out of the Koontz case is very clear, Martin said.

"The government cannot make extortionate demands for money in exchange for a permit," she said.

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