Palazzolo v Rhode Island, 99-2047

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Writing for the CourtKennedy
Citation121 S.Ct. 2448,150 L.Ed.2d 592,533 U.S. 606
Docket Number99-2047
Decision Date28 June 2001

533 U.S. 606
121 S.Ct. 2448
150 L.Ed.2d 592

NOTICE: This opinion is subject to formal revision before publication in the preliminary print of the United States Reports. Readers are requested to notify the Reporter of Decisions, Supreme Court of the United States, Washington, D. C. 20543, of any typographical or other formal errors, in order that corrections may be made before the preliminary print goes to press.


No. 99-2047.


Argued February 26, 2001
Decided June 28, 2001


In order to acquire the waterfront parcel of Rhode Island land that is here at issue, petitioner and associates formed Shore Gardens, Inc. (SGI), in 1959. After SGI purchased the property petitioner bought out his associates and became the sole shareholder. Most of the property was then, and is now, salt marsh subject to tidal flooding. The wet ground and permeable soil would require considerable fill before significant structures could be built. Over the years, SGI's intermittent applications to develop the property were rejected by various government agencies. After 1966, no further applications were made for over a decade. Two intervening events, however, become important to the issues presented. First, in 1971, the State created respondent Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council (Council) and charged it with protecting the State's coastal properties. The Council's regulations, known as the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Program (CRMP), designated salt marshes like those on SGI's property as protected "coastal wetlands" on which development is greatly limited. Second, in 1978 SGI's corporate charter was revoked, and title to the property passed to petitioner as the corporation's sole shareholder. In 1983 petitioner applied to the Council for permission to construct a wooden bulkhead and fill his entire marsh land area. The Council rejected the application, concluding, inter alia, that it would conflict with the CRMP. In 1985 petitioner filed a new application with the Council, seeking permission to fill 11 of the property's 18 wetland acres in order to build a private beach club. The Council rejected this application as well, ruling that the proposal did not satisfy the standards for obtaining a "special exception" to fill salt marsh, whereby the proposed activity must serve a compelling public purpose. Subsequently, petitioner filed an inverse condemnation action in Rhode Island Superior Court, asserting that the State's wetlands regulations, as applied by the Council to his parcel, had taken the property without compensation in violation of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. The suit alleged the Council's action deprived him of "all economically beneficial use" of his property, resulting in a total taking requiring compensation under Lucas v. South Carolina Coastal Council, 505 U.S. 1003, and sought $3,150,000 in damages, a figure derived from an appraiser's estimate as to the value of a 74-lot residential subdivision on the property. The court ruled against petitioner, and the State Supreme Court affirmed, holding that (1) petitioner's takings claim was not ripe; (2) he had no right to challenge regulations predating 1978, when he succeeded to legal ownership of the property; (3) he could not assert a takings claim based on the denial of all economic use of his property in light of undisputed evidence that he had $200,000 in development value remaining on an upland parcel of the property; and (4) because the regulation at issue predated his acquisition of title, he could have had no reasonable investment-backed expectation that he could develop his property, and, therefore, he could not recover under Penn Central Transp. Co. v. New York City, 438 U.S. 104, 124 Held:

1. This case is ripe for review. Pp. 8-16.

(a) A takings claim challenging application of land-use regulations is not ripe unless the agency charged with implementing the regulations has reached a final decision regarding their application to the property at issue. Williamson County Regional Planning Comm'n v. Hamilton Bank of Johnson City, 473 U.S. 172, 186. A final decision does not occur until the responsible agency determines the extent of permitted development on the land. MacDonald, Sommer & Frates v. Yolo County, 477 U.S. 340, 351. Petitioner obtained such a final decision when the Council denied his 1983 and 1985 applications. The State Supreme Court erred in ruling that, notwithstanding those denials, doubt remained as to the extent of development the Council would allow on petitioner's parcel due to his failure to explore other uses for the property that would involve filling substantially less wetlands. This is belied by the unequivocal nature of the wetland regulations at issue and by the Council's application of the regulations to the subject property. The CRMP permits the Council to grant a special exception to engage in a prohibited use only where a "compelling public purpose" is served. The proposal to fill the entire property was not accepted under Council regulations and did not qualify for the special exception. The Council determined the use proposed in the second application (the beach club) did not satisfy the "compelling public purpose" standard. There is no indication the Council would have accepted the application had the proposed club occupied a smaller surface area. To the contrary, it ruled that the proposed activity was not a "compelling public purpose." Although a landowner may not establish a taking before the land-use authority has the opportunity, using its own reasonable procedures, to decide and explain the reach of a challenged regulation, e.g., MacDonald, supra, at 342, once it becomes clear that the permissible uses of the property are known to a reasonable degree of certainty, a takings claim is likely to have ripened. Here, the Council's decisions make plain that it interpreted its regulations to bar petitioner from engaging in any filling or development on the wetlands. Further permit applications were not necessary to establish this point. Pp. 8-12.

(b) Contrary to the State Supreme Court's ruling, petitioner's claim is not unripe by virtue of his failure to seek permission for a use of the property that would involve development only of its upland portion. It is true that there was uncontested testimony that an upland site would have an estimated value of $200,000 if developed. And, while the CRMP requires Council approval to develop upland property lying within 200 feet of protected waters, the strict "compelling public purpose" test does not govern proposed land uses on property in this classification. Council officials testified at trial, moreover, that they would have allowed petitioner to build a residence on the upland parcel. Nevertheless, this Court's ripeness jurisprudence requires petitioner to explore development opportunities on his upland parcel only if there is uncertainty as to the land's permitted use. The State's assertion that the uplands' value is in doubt comes too late for the litigation before this Court. It was stated in the certiorari petition that the uplands were worth an estimated $200,000. The figure not only was uncontested but also was cited as fact in the State's brief in opposition. In this circumstance ripeness cannot be contested by saying that the value of the nonwetland parcels is unknown. See Lucas, supra, at 1020, and n. 9. Nor is there genuine ambiguity in the record as to the extent of permitted development on petitioner's property, either on the wetlands or the uplands. Pp. 12-14.

(c) Nor is petitioner's takings claim rendered unripe, as the State Supreme Court held, by his failure to apply for permission to develop the 74-lot subdivision that was the basis for the damages sought in his inverse condemnation suit. It is difficult to see how this concern is relevant to the inquiry at issue here. The Council informed petitioner that he could not fill the wetlands; it follows of necessity that he could not fill and then build 74 single-family dwellings there. Petitioner's submission of this proposal would not have clarified the extent of development permitted by the wetlands regulations, which is the inquiry required under the Court's ripeness decisions. Pp. 14-16.

2. Petitioner's acquisition of title after the regulations' effective date did not bar his takings claims. This Court rejects the State Supreme Court's sweeping rule that a purchaser or a successive title holder like petitioner is deemed to have notice of an earlier-enacted restriction and is barred from claiming that it effects a taking. Were the Court to accept that rule, the postenactment transfer of title would absolve the State of its obligation to defend any action restricting land use, no matter how extreme or unreasonable. A State would be allowed, in effect, to put an expiration date on the Takings Clause. This ought not to be the rule. Future generations, too, have a right to challenge unreasonable limitations on the use and value of land. The State's notice justification does not take into account the effect on owners at the time of enactment, who are prejudiced as well. Should an owner attempt to challenge a new regulation, but not survive the process of ripening his or her claim (which, as this case demonstrates, will often take years), under the State's rule the right to compensation may not by asserted by an heir or successor, and so may not be asserted at all. The State's rule also would work a critical alteration to the nature of property, as the newly regulated landowner is stripped of the ability to transfer the interest which was possessed prior to the regulation. The State may not by this means secure a windfall for itself. See, e.g., Webb's Fabulous Pharmacies, Inc. v. Beckwith, 449 U.S. 155, 164. The rule is, furthermore, capricious in effect. The...

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