Katzin v. United States

Decision Date15 July 2016
Docket NumberNo. 12-384L,12-384L
PartiesRICHARD LEWIS KATZIN, et al., Plaintiff, v. UNITED STATES, Defendant.
CourtU.S. Claims Court

Post-trial decision, alleged taking of a parcel of land on Culebra Island, Puerto Rico; standards for taking; ownership of property under Puerto Rican law; the government's claims of ownership; interference with and appropriation of plaintiffs' property interests; measure of just compensation

Roberto E. Berríos Falcón, San Juan, Puerto Rico for plaintiffs. With Mr. Berríos during the trial and on the briefs were Roger J. Marzulla and Ian F. Gaunt, Marzulla Law, LLC, Washington, D.C. Also with him on the briefs was Nancie G. Marzulla, Marzulla Law, LLC, Washington, D.C.

Emily M. Meeker, Environment and Natural Resources Division, United States Department of Justice, Washington, D.C., for defendant. With Ms. Meeker during the trial and on the briefs were William J. Shapiro and Cullen S. Shearburn, Environment and Natural Resources Division, United States Department of Justice, Washington, D.C. Also with her on the briefs was John C. Cruden, Assistant Attorney General, Environment and Natural Resources Division, United States Department of Justice, Washington, D.C.


LETTOW, Judge.

This post-trial opinion addresses claims by plaintiffs Dr. Richard Lewis Katzin ("Dr. Katzin"), Mary Beth Katzin Simon ("Ms. Katzin"), and Rose Marie Kjeldsen Winters ("Ms. Winters") that the United States (the "government") interfered with their ownership rights to a parcel of land ("Parcel 4") which overlooks the Atlantic Ocean on Culebra Island, Puerto Rico, and that the interference effected a taking in contravention of the Fifth Amendment. In 2006, plaintiffs retained a real estate broker to sell the parcel and entered into an agreement of sale with a buyer. A representative of the United States Fish & Wildlife Service ("FWS"), however, informed the buyer that FWS owned a strip of land along the coast of Parcel 4, an approximately 2.25-acre former gun mount site on a peninsula within Parcel 4, and the peninsula itself. Plaintiffs allege that the FWS's claim of competing ownership caused the buyer to rescind the contract. They also assert that since then FWS's continuing claim of ownership to the entire 10.01-acre peninsula on the eastern side of the property has prevented them from selling Parcel 4.

This case raises factual questions of property ownership that turn "in large part on events and handwritten records spanning the 19th and 20th centuries," beginning when Culebra was a possession of the Kingdom of Spain. Katzin v. United States, 120 Fed. Cl. 199, 201 (2015). The government asserts that plaintiffs' claims are barred by the six-year statute of limitations set out in 28 U.S.C. § 2501 because the United States has claimed ownership of the coastal strip and the former gun mount site for many decades, and plaintiffs knew or should have known about these claims. Def.'s Post-Trial Br. at 48-57, ECF No. 131. Alternatively, the government asserts that plaintiffs' claims should be barred by the equitable doctrine of laches, arguing that plaintiffs' delay in bringing these claims before this court caused undue prejudice or injury to the United States. Id. at 57-62. Finally, the government asserts that plaintiffs have failed to establish that they own the peninsula on which a part of the former gun mount site and coastal strip are located, and that, in any event, the government's claims of ownership did not effect a taking of plaintiffs' property interests. Id. at 62-98. A nine-day trial was held in Washington, D.C. and San Juan, Puerto Rico, commencing on November 12, 2015, and ending on November 24, 2015. Following post-trial briefing, a closing argument was held on March 31, 2016. The case is now ready for disposition.

A. History of Property Interests on Culebra

Culebra is an archipelago of islands approximately seventeen miles east of the island of Puerto Rico and twelve miles west of St. Thomas. Katzin, 120 Fed. Cl. at 201-02; PX 421 at 3 (Expert Report of Awilda Rosa Santiago, "A Brief History of the Settlement of Culebra").2 The largest island, also named Culebra, is approximately 7 miles long and 3.5 miles wide with low hills and "a variety of tropical flora and fauna," including protected mangroves, coral reefs, sea birds, and sea turtles. Katzin, 120 Fed. Cl. at 202; DX 1 at 11-12 (Report of the Puerto Rico Planning Board, "Culebra: A Plan for Conservation and Development" (Oct. 1973)). Culebra is known for its beautiful beaches and natural harbors, but its climate is generally dry and fresh water is limited. PX 412 at 3; DX 1 at 11-12. The climate is also very mild, with temperatures rarely rising above the high eighties or falling below the low seventies. DX 1 at 11. The majority of the land on the large island is volcanically derived and contains shallow soils "not suitable for extensive cultivation." Id. Culebra's eastern or windward side faces the Atlantic Ocean, and the Atlantic meets the Caribbean Sea at the waters adjacent to Culebra.

1. Development of Culebra and division of property interests between the Kingdom of Spain and private owners.

Puerto Rico, including Culebra, was controlled by the Spanish crown until 1898. Katzin, 120 Fed. Cl. at 202 n.6; PX 412 at 3. Europeans did not live permanently on Culebra until the late 1800s, in part because of the limited availability of fresh water and because the islands' natural harbors were frequently used by pirates. DX 1 at 6; DX 49 at 56 (FWS Annual Narrative Report for Calendar Year 1994, Culebra National Wildlife Refuge). Several individuals petitioned the Spanish government in 1871 and 1874 to allow them to settle on Culebra, but the government denied these requests. DX 1 at 6. Shortly thereafter, however, in 1879, Spain announced that it would encourage settlement on Culebra, and the first settlers arrived the following year. Id. By 1899, Culebra had 704 residents. Id.

While Culebra was under Spanish control, property ownership on the island was subject to Spanish law. Under the Spanish Water Act of 1866, the following areas were considered public domain: (1) the "coasts, or sea boundaries of the Spanish territory, with their works, inlets, coves, roadsteads, bays and harbors, (2) the "maritime zone which encircles all the coasts," as defined by international law, and (3) the beaches, including the land "washed by the sea in its ebb and flow." Pls.' Post-Trial Br. at 6, ECF No. 130 (quoting Armstrong v. Estado Libre Asociado de Puerto Rico, 97 P.R. Dec. 588, 618 (1969) (translated from Spanish)). The mangrove marshes along the coasts of many islands, including Culebra, were also considered public domain. Id. The Ports Act of 1880 clarified the Water Act of 1866 by defining the "maritime terrestrial zone" as "the area of the coasts or seashore . . . that is washed by the sea in its ebb and flow, where the tide is perceptible, or the highest tidal waves in stormy weather when the tide is not perceptible." Id. at 7 (quoting Armstrong, 97 P.R. Dec. at 623 (translated from Spanish)). It further provided that land bounded by the ocean was subject to a "rescue and littoral" easement extending an additional 20 meters inland beyond the "maritime terrestrial zone," to be used in the event of a shipwreck. Id.

In 1887, the Kingdom of Spain commissioned a survey by Ramon Garcia Saenz to divide Culebra into lots to be assigned to private landowners. PX 421 at 3; Tr. 643:6-8, 662:16-19 (Test. of Prof. Awilda Rosa Santiago, Univ. of Puerto Rico); PX 2T (Survey Plan Regarding the Island of Culebra and Its Division into Lots, 1887).3 The resulting survey plan divided the island into 80 lots, the majority of which were 25 hectares (approximately 62 acres)4 in total area, to be assigned to individuals who would gain ownership of the property once they had demonstrated they had undertaken efforts to cultivate the land. Tr. 663:12-18 (Rosa); PX 3T at 4-8 (Parcel Division of the Island of Culebra); DX 1 at 24-25. The plan also included four "small adjacent islets," three of which were unoccupied and one which appears to have been settled. PX 3T at 12. Spain retained control over the remainder of the land on Culebra. Of that remainder, Lots 85-89 were designated as mangrove swamps (approximately 35 hectares in total), Lots 90-92 were designated as "lands reserved for the state" (approximately 466 hectares in total), 4.90 hectares of land were reserved "for the War Branch," 18.90 hectares were reserved "for the Town," approximately 26.5 hectares comprised Flamencos Lagoon, 1.80 hectares comprised Los Patos Lagoon, and 134.0 hectares were designated as a "maritime zone." Id.; PX 421 at 3. The134-hectare maritime zone does not appear to be labelled as such on the survey plan. However, a thin strip of land is demarcated along most of the coast of the island, separated from the other 25-hectare, privately owned lots and in some places appearing to join with other Spanish-retained lots on the island, including mangrove swamps and Lots 90-92 (reserved for the state). PX 2T.

The subject property in this case (Parcel 4) roughly corresponds to the area designated as Lot 24 on the 1887 survey plan, although the size of Lot 24 is listed as 25 hectares (approximately 63.6 cuerdas) and Parcel 4 is approximately 67.5 cuerdas. Tr. 665:3-6 (Rosa); PX 3T at 6; DX 28T at 9-10 (Deed of Division, Allocation, Transfer, and Delivery of Estate Property, Dec. 26, 1967). On the survey plan, Lot 24 is bordered to the north by Lot 25, to the west by Lot 22, and to the south by Lot 23. PX 2T. The thin strip of separately demarcated land depicted along most of the island also runs along the eastern coast of Lot 24, which includes a small peninsula. Id. Lot 89 - a mangrove swamp comprised of 3.70 hectares (9.14 acres) - is labeled as such in an area within the thin strip of coastal land to the south of Lot 33 and to the northeast of Lot 24, across the bay called "...

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