The Murr family has a lovely little spot for a picnic along the banks of the St. Croix River.
And they better enjoy picnics, because Wisconsin says they’re not allowed to do much else with the land. They can’t sell it, or build something on it, or basically do anything except stand on it and admire the river as it flows lazily past.
That’s because St. Croix County and the state Department of Natural Resources have decided the Murrs’ 1.25-acre parcel does not comply with regulations requiring a buffer between waterways and buildings.
The Murrs also own a cabin that sits on a separate, adjoining 1.25-acre parcel. Even though the two pieces of land are separate, the county says they can be regulated as a single plot — and that means the Murrs are unable to sell the second, vacant, parcel.
Since regulations block them from using the land for any commercial reason, the Murrs asked the county to compensate them for the value of the land — which they estimate at $400,000. They got an offer of $40,000.
“If you want to regulate this lot to death, I suppose you can do that. But if you do that, then you owe us just compensation for it,” said Todd Graziano, executive director of the Pacific Legal Foundation’s Washington, D.C., office.
The PLF is representing the Murrs in their case against the county and state. After more than a decade of legal back-and-forth with those governments, the Murrs’ case is going all the way from the backwoods of Wisconsin to the marble halls of Washington.
The U.S. Supreme Court will hear the case Murr v. St. Croix County and the State of Wisconsin during its fall session this year.
“This case isn’t just about our own rights, our own ability to use our land,” said Donna Murr, who owns the land along with her two brothers and sister. “It’s about the Constitution’s protections for everybody against overbearing regulations.”
Although it is focused on St. Croix County’s uncompensated “taking” of a family’s investment parcel that they own along the St. Croix River, the case challenges an abuse that has been known to happen nationwide: where regulators forbid the use of private property, and also fail to provide “just compensation,” on the excuse the owner also happens to own the neighboring parcel of property.
The PLF believes the case could be an important precedent that will stop local governments from using the same reasoning to avoid giving compensation when regulations make land unusable.
The Murr family has owned the two parcels of land since the 1960s.
Land use regulations passed in 1976 prevent new construction on lots along the St. Croix River, but those rules included a clause to exempt existing lots, including the Murrs’.
When the Murrs decided to sell the vacant lot in 2004 to pay for renovations to the cabin on the other lot, the county said they couldn’t do it because of the land use regulations. The two lots are considered “common property,” they were told.
But that doesn’t make sense to them. For decades, the Murrs have paid taxes on both plots of land — separately. The most recent assessment valued the vacant lot, the one they want to sell, at $400,000.
“An assessor told us then that the extra land was basically worth about $40,000, meaning we lost $360,000 in value because of the ordinance change,” Murr told the Eau Claire Leader-Telegram. “If you do the math, since we owned the property, we paid $78,000 more in taxes than we should have. It just seems so unfair.”
A judge in St. Croix County in 2013 rejected the Murrs’ claim to additional compensation. The state appeals court agreed in 2014. After the state Supreme Court declined to hear the case, PLF asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review it.
“The Murrs’ property, viewed as a whole, retains beneficial and practical use as a residential lot. Accordingly, we conclude they have not alleged a compensable taking as a matter of law,” the appeals court concluded.
Gaziano says the idea the property is “viewed as a whole” is simply wrong. There are two separate lots, and the government has to respect that distinction.
In short, lines on a map matter.
“If a state law creates lines that a property owner can’t ignore, then the state can’t ignore those same lines, either,” he said.