This 1992 U.S. Supreme Court case addresses the question of what constitutes the proper exercise of state and local government regulation over land use under to the Fifth Amendment Takings Clause, which provides, “nor shall public property be taken for public use, without just compensation.” The Takings Clause does not automatically forbid a state or municipal government from regulating property or exercising eminent domain consistent with the government’s police powers, but it does require reimbursement to a landowner in cases where a court determines a regulation has deprived an owner of all economically viable use of their land.
The case was filed by David Lucas, who purchased two parcels of coastal zone property for $975,000 in 1986 with the intent of erecting single-family homes. In 1988 Lucas was denied the requisite building permits because the state legislature enacted in the interim a statute that had the effect of barring Lucas from building any permanent structures on the parcels. The U.S. Supreme Court held that an unconstitutional taking occurred if Lucas was deprived of all economically beneficial or productive use of his land.
Justice Antonin Scalia, writing the majority opinion, reasoned that confiscatory regulations that eliminate an owner’s ability to draw any economic benefit from real property even for a purported public purpose must be compensated in the same manner as if it were a “permanent physical occupation” of property. Upholding such an infringement upon a property owner’s “bundle of rights” is, according to the Court, inconsistent with the historical basis of the Takings Clause.
Consequently, the Lucas case stands for the proposition that an uncompensated and total building ban on property by government regardless of the public reason automatically constitutes an illegal taking, unless the restrictions on the use are inherent to the property or existing in state common law principles. The case also signals the willingness of the U.S. Supreme Court to carefully scrutinize the traditional exercise of state and local police powers over land use and to provide deferential treatment of individual property rights under the Fifth Amendment Takings Clause.
Lucas v. South Carolina Coastal Council, 505 U.S. 1003, 112 S.Ct. 2886 (1992); Margaret J. Radin, “Evaluating Government Reasons for Changing Property Regimes,” Albany Law Review 55 (1992): 587; George Skouras, Takings Law and the Supreme Court: Judicial Oversight of the Regulatory State’s Acquisition, Use, and Control of Private Property (New York: Peter Lang, 2000); and Kathleen M. Sullivan, “Unconstitutional Conditions,” Harvard Law Review 102 (1989): 1415.