The problem of value in regulatory takings

Regulatory takings law is a mess. The Fifth Amendment promises: “nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.” This constitutional mandate encompasses direct acquisition of property, government action that damages or restricts property, and regulation of property that effectively results in a taking. Defining what constitutes a regulatory taking has vexed the courts for decades.

I believe much of the trouble comes from the Supreme Court’s fixation on loss of value. The primary test for a regulatory taking looks to reasonable investment-backed expectations dashed by the regulation (i.e., I’d amassed resources and did a lot of footwork to build a house, but a new shoreline buffer prohibits construction), the resulting economic loss, and the character of the government action.

Examining value creates intractable line-drawing problems and fails to establish a predictable rule. How much loss of value is too much? As one might expect, courts come out with wildly different answers, though all of them tend to lean toward not requiring compensation. A Massachusetts court, for example, recently held that a regulation that forbade any development on a parcel of land and resulted in a 91.5% loss of property value was not a taking that requires the government to compensate the property owner.

Hence, no one going into court with a takings claim really has any way to predict what a court might do, though it’s safe to guess that the result will be bad. Courts are reluctant to draw a line in the sand, so they just hand wins to the government. This is not to say that loss of value is wholly irrelevant, of course, but it’s more relevant to the question of how much compensation is due, not whether a taking has occurred in the first place.

Takings law doesn’t have to be this way. In fact, nineteenth-century takings law took a totally different approach. Early courts looked to the burden on the property interest, not the loss of economic value. Most fledgling regulatory takings law developed in the state courts, for two reasons: the Fifth Amendment wasn’t applied against the states until the Fourteenth Amendment was ratified in 1868, and the federal government in the nineteenth century wasn’t much in the business of regulating land.

The early state cases didn’t even consider economic loss in their approach to what constitutes a taking. For instance, in Woodruff v. Neal, an 1859 Connecticut case, a government granted ranchers licenses to graze their cattle on public rights of way that crossed over private land. The private landowners sued for a taking and won because their property rights included rights over the “herbage” that the cows ate. The economic loss had to have been puny, but the court didn’t even bother addressing this, probably because they saw economic loss as pertinent only to the question of compensation due.

Most of the other regulatory takings cases of that time period involved riparian rights–wharfage rights and so on. So it was with one of the United States Supreme Court’s early forays into regulatory takings–a case where, like the state cases that preceded it, did not even bother to mention loss of value. The case was Yates v. Milwaukee (1870). Yates owned land adjacent to a river and had built a wharf that extended out into the water. The city didn’t like his wharf, so they declared it a nuisance and sought to tear it down. Yates argued this was a regulatory taking, and the Supreme Court agreed. They didn’t bother to mention how much the loss of the wharf would cost Yates. They just held that access to a river was among the rights held by owners of a riverbank. The city had destroyed that right, so a taking occurred and compensation was due.

Strangely, seven years later, the Supreme Court started to retreat from regulatory takings altogether and didn’t really return to the doctrine until the early twentieth century. Much later, when the Supreme Court thought up its value-based regulatory takings test in a 1978 case called Penn Central v. City of New York, the Court completely ignored Yates and all the many non-value-based takings cases in the state courts of the nineteenth century. In fact, the Court seemed to believe that regulatory takings law was a twentieth-century creation that began with a 1920 case called Pennsylvania Coal Co. v. Mahon. This bizarre blindness to the real history of regulatory takings law has resulted in an incomprehensible labyrinth of takings jurisprudence. The Supreme Court could learn a few lessons from the state courts of two centuries ago.