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Nancy Smith

Heroes of Private-Property Rights Still Mopping Up in Landmark Florida Case

October 6, 2013 - 6:00pm

Coy Koontz Jr. and his wife Linda, retired now and living quietly in the North Carolina mountains, are still not finished with perhaps the most monumental property-rights case ever filed in Florida -- even though they won in the U.S. Supreme Court.

And they're coming up to 20 years since Koontz's dad first decided it was time to stand on his constitutional rights and fight back.

Until June 25, when the high court ruled, landowners who were denied permits had no legal recourse against excessive land-use requirements because they could not show actual damages.

"But four months after the Supreme Court decision, we're still waiting on a final resolution on the award," Koontz told Sunshine State News in a telephone interview last week.

"We don't anticipate anymore hassle, but if we do, Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF) is there to help us finish the fight."

Paul J. Beard, the PLF attorney who argued the case before the Supreme Court, told Sunshine State News, "While the ruling is viewed as a victory for property rights advocates in general, it only affords the Koontz family the right to have their case heard again by the Florida Supreme Court. It was kicked back to Florida. We just think they will move on to the award phase and leave it at that, but we're prepared to keep going."

Beard called the Koontz decision "monumental," and said it could have a bearing on a flurry of pending cases, in Hillsborough and Pasco counties in Florida, as well as in California and Washington, D.C.

The highest court in the land has recognized that money is a form of property, and the Constitution prohibits grabbing money from property owners the same way it prohibits grabbing land without compensation,Beard explained.

Twenty years is a long time to wait for justice, Koontz admitted. "My dad didn't make it. So I took over the fight when he died. Quitting just isn't in our family DNA."

Koontz retells the story, but not easily. He says he's comfortable now, believes the worst of the fight is over. "We get back to Florida two to four times a year, our youngest daughter still lives there," he says. "But mostly, the Pacific Legal Foundation saw us right on this one. They presented one heck of a case before the Supreme Court and life is a lot calmer.

Koontz is not sorry he fought city hall, not sorry he fought to uphold the family's protections under the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution.

The case is a memory that shouldn't fade for any American, Koontz says, no matter how long it takes for the final resolution. This is what happened:

In 1994, Koontz's dad, Coy Sr., wanted to develop commercial land on a 15-acre parcel, most of it within a riparian habitat protection zone in Orange County. So, he applied for a dredge and fill permit with the St. Johns Water Management District.

Coy Koontz Sr. agreed to deed the district 11 acres of the property and just develop the rest.

St. Johns agreed to grant the permit, but only on the condition that he place a conservation easement over his land, and perform mitigation off-site by replacing culverts and plugging certain drainage canals on other properties Koontz didn't own -- miles away from the property he did. When Koontz refused to perform the off-site mitigation, St. Johns denied the permit.

Koontz Sr. filed an inverse condemnation suit in circuit court. He argued that the off-site mitigation requirement violated Nollan v. California Coastal Commission and Dolan v. Tigard. The circuit court applied Nollan and Dolan, holding that the requirement bore no connection to the projects alleged impacts on the riparian habitat protection zone, or wetlands.The court awarded Koontz compensation for a temporary taking.

Though the court of appeals affirmed the decision, the Florida Supreme Court reversed it. The Supreme Court held that no taking under Nollan and Dolan had occurred, because (1) Nollan and Dolan apply only to "forced dedications of interests" in real property (not to mitigation work); and (2) Nollan and Dolan apply only when government approves and issues a permit with conditions (not when it denies a permit, and therefore nothing has been demanded of, or taken from, the landowner).

Koontz Sr. never stopped believing he was right and never weakened, his son said. But in 2000, when Koontz Sr. died, his son didn't think twice. "It was a fight that had to be seen out," he said. "It wouldn't have been right to stop there."

Finally, with the help of the PLF, the case reached the U.S. Supreme Court. And in a 5-to-4 ruling, the high court decided that the St. Johns River Water Management District's requirement that Koontz Sr. pay $150,000 for a wetlands improvement project miles away from his own proposed construction site was a violation of his Fifth Amendment rights.

The Fifth Amendment requires just compensation when private property is taken for public use, and the $150,000 fee, the court said, amounted to an unreasonable taking.

Conservative Justice Samuel Alito, who led the majority decision, wrote, Extortionate demands of this sort frustrate the Fifth Amendment right to just compensation.

Justice Elena Kagan, however, siding with the water district, labeled it unwise for the court to undermine a routine part of how government regulators conduct business.

"It's a revolutionary case," Beard said. "It's beginning to creep into current cases."

Koontz told Sunshine State News, "I can't tell you enough how much I admire Pacific Legal. We had other real good lawyers along the way. But Pacific Legal was special. They operate like great surgeons. They've had quite a run at the Supreme Court, too. I think they've won seven out of their last eight cases."

Asked if he would do it all again, Koontz said, "In a heartbeat."

"If you don't stand up for your rights, pretty soon you're not going to have them," he said. "If nobody steps up, eventually there's no reason to."

Reach Nancy Smith at nsmith@sunshinestatenews.com or at 228-282-2423.

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