Justices to Hear Cases on Rights of Property Owners Outcome Could Mean Win for Developers and Loss for Rent-Control Proponents. SUPREME COURT

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A NEW battle front is opening up in the Supreme Court Jan. 22: The right of property owners to use and profit from their land versus the power of government to protect wetlands and coastlines or to control rents.

Last fall, within a single month, the justices agreed to hear three cases that offer opportunities to strengthen property rights, especially those of land developers.

Although the justices may make only minor shifts in legal doctrine or simply reaffirm the status quo, the fact that they accepted these cases for review signals possible change. All three cases have been decided in favor of government regulation in lower courts.

The court was to hear the first of these cases Jan. 21. In Yee v. Escondido, a mobile-home-park owner in San Diego County argues that the rent control on his lots amounts to a government taking of his property - in effect, a permanent occupation of his property by tenants at reduced rents.

Mobile homes fetch higher prices when sited on rent-controlled lots, so the benefit of the controlled rents goes to the seller.

Without rent control, that benefit would go to the owner of the lot in the form of higher rents.

The park owner, John Yee, argues that the city of Escondido must either compensate him for the revenues lost under rent control or rescind its rent-control law on mobile-home parks.

The city counters that it has a legitimate interest in keeping housing affordable, and Mr. Yee has no legal property-right claim to rents above the rent-control level or the premium it adds to mobile-home prices.

The Yee case is of particular concern to the elderly. Nearly one-quarter of mobile-home residents are over 65 years old. Of the elderly in mobile homes, according to the American Association of Retired Persons, 80 percent have annual incomes under $20,000. A decision in favor of Mr. Yee could threaten protections like the Escondido rent-control ordinance in 32 states, according to the AARP.

Two more property-rights cases are in the wings to be heard this year:

* In Lucas v. South Carolina Coastal Council, a builder bought two beachfront lots for a total of $975,000. He planned to build a house for his own family on one and build a house to sell on the other. But after he bought the lots, South Carolina passed a coastal-management law that forbade new building so close to the beach. His lots became virtually worthless.

David Lucas, the builder, says the state owes him the lost value of the land, since through regulation it took away any economically viable use of it. …


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