Court Weighs Widow's Right to a Lake Tahoe View

By Robert Marquand, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, February 27, 1997 | Go to article overview
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Court Weighs Widow's Right to a Lake Tahoe View


Robert Marquand, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


The right to control what happens on your property is something bone-deep for most Americans - a sentiment that often flourishes alongside such prized patriotic "rights" as low taxes, free speech, and locally run schools.

Yesterday the United States Supreme Court heard arguments on whether property bought by an elderly widow for a "dream home" was wrongly denied a building permit in order to preserve the water quality of Lake Tahoe in Nevada.

The case is being closely followed, not only because it presents a sympathetic owner against popular environmental laws - but because a Supreme Court ruling for the owner could mark a turning point in the ongoing battle between property-rights advocates and states. It may also help define what is "just compensation" under the Constitution for private land "taken" by the state. The rural West, Nevada in particular, has become a hotbed of discontent over the control and use of federal, state, and private lands. Since the 1970s, the high court has given states latitude to "take" or limit the use of private property - in order to protect ecosystems, wetlands, special agricultural areas, public parks, or historic preservation zones. Whether or not the nine justices will create new rights for owners was unclear yesterday. However the justices clearly felt Bernardine Suitum had been wrongly denied access to the courts to pursue her suit against the state. "Why not give this poor elderly woman the right to take her case to court?" asked Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. In this case, Mrs Suitum was denied a building permit by an environmental code created by California and Nevada. In compensation, she was given four "development credits." Such credits can be sold to other builders who use them to remove other zoning codes and allow for expansion. The credits are in wide use in various states and cities that have environmental or historic areas - as a form of compensation. Under current law, owners must try and sell or dispose of property using these means of compensation - before going to court with a claim or grievance. However, Suitum's lawyers argued yesterday the development credits in Tahoe are nearly worthless - and so the point of whether or not a taking had been made is moot. It had been, they said. "There is either a value, easily determined, or there is not," said her lawyer, R.S. Radford. "It is unfair to Mrs. Suitum to test a market that doesn't exist." He went on to say that Suitum's right to sue does not begin when a government official reviews how well or poorly she has dealt with transfer credits - but with the original government decision to halt any building on her property.

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Court Weighs Widow's Right to a Lake Tahoe View
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