This 1987 U.S. Supreme Court case dealt with the controversy over the legally permissible scope of state and local government regulatory land-use power under the Fifth Amendment Takings Clause, which states, “nor shall public property be taken for public use, without just compensation.” This constitutional provision 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 if a court determines that a government regulation has deprived an owner of all economically viable use of his or her land.
The case was filed by the Nollans, who desired to build a new house replacing a bungalow on their beachfront property but were denied the necessary building permit unless they accepted an easement allowing public access across a portion of their property. The Court held, in a 5–4 decision, that the California Coastal Commission’s building permit condition constituted an impermissible taking of private property under the Fifth Amendment Taking Clause for which the Nollans must be compensated.
Justice Antonin Scalia, writing the majority opinion, stated the Commission has authority to deny building permits or impose other restrictions only if it “substantially advances” a legitimate state governmental purpose. The Court reasoned the state’s interest in preserving public views of the coastline had an insufficient connection to the imposed easement, which would only allow the public to walk over the Nollan’s property to reach other parts of the beach and not necessarily improve public views of the coast. According to the Court, absent this essential connection between the public purpose and the easement condition, the imposed permit requirement amounted to an “out-and-out plan of extortion” and, therefore, an unconstitutional regulation of property.
The strict scrutiny standard of judicial review used in Nollan and other cases involving property regulations signals the willingness of the U.S. Supreme Court to carefully scrutinize the traditional exercise of state and local police powers over land use. The case also signals the Court’s deferential treatment of individual property rights under the Fifth Amendment Takings Clause.
Nollan v. California Coastal Commission, 483 U.S. 825, 107 S. Ct. 3141 (1987); 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, no. 1415 (1989).