WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court stepped yesterday into the midst of state efforts to protect beaches and wetlands from man-made harm, saying it would rule on states' duty to pay damages to private property owners who are barred from building on waterfront lots.
The court will use a South Carolina case, with potential impact on Maryland and other coastal states, to settle the scope of private landowners' right to compensation when beach and wetland protection laws forbid development.
Under a 1988 law in South Carolina designed to stop critical erosion of the beaches and dunes, a state Coastal Council has drawn "setback" lines that outlaw construction close to the shores.
In the case of a man who wanted to build houses on two lots in Charleston County, the setback was drawn behind his lots -- thus depriving him of the chance to ever build on either one.
The owner sued, claiming that all economic value of his property had been wiped out and that the state owed him compensation. The Constitution's Fifth Amendment forbids the seizure of private property for public use without compensation.
The owner won a compensation award of more than $1.2 million,TC but the state Supreme Court overturned that in February. If the state acts to avert "serious public harm," some private property owners may be left with economically worthless land, but that does not mean their land was seized or that compensation is due, the court said.
The Supreme Court itself in recent years has been more sympathetic to property owners' claims that government regulation of their land goes far enough that compensation should be paid.
The case is a test of this in an area of public regulation that is spreading among the states: restrictions on shoreline development.
The key to the outcome of that case may be that the South Carolina law sometimes has the effect of taking away all the commercial value of shorefront property. Some states' laws do not go that far, but the way the Supreme Court decides the test case may affect these more limited forms of shorefront regulation.
In Maryland, Thomas Deming, an assistant attorney general for the Department of Natural Resources, said: "There is no Maryland law which on its face deprives an owner of all economic use of his property."
But under the state's wetlands law and its Critical Area Law, there could be instances when landowners might be prevented from building on all their property -- for instance, if all their land was declared bald-eagle habitat or wetland, according to Mr. Deming.
But even in those hardship cases, Maryland laws allow for state regulators to grant exceptions.
OTHER SUPREME COURT ACTIONS
CASE TO BE REVIEWED
Punishment for murder -- The court agreed yesterday to decide whether a death sentence in a murder case may be based on the harshness of the method of killing, regardless of whether the murderer intended to act cruelly or to inflict torture. The Florida Supreme Court had ruled, in a Fort Lauderdale murder case, that strangulation of a conscious person may be treated as "especially heinous," thus qualifying for a death sentence. Sochor vs. Florida (No. 91-5843).
Death sentences -- The court refused to consider an Oklahoma death row inmate's claim that his rights were violated when the trial judge refused to let the sister of one of his murder victims take the stand to urge the jury not to impose the death sentence. A federal appeals court had ruled that such opinions from the victim's family members are beside the point and can only divert the jury from deciding what punishment is proper. Robison vs. Maynard (No. 91-5897).
School desegregation. The court voted to leave intact a federal appeals court ruling that Kansas City public schools formerly segregated by race may be required to spend large amounts of money to upgrade the schools. Missouri vs. Jenkins (No. 91-324).
Military drug tests -- The court left standing a ruling by the military services' highest court, the U.S. Court of Military Appeals, declaring that commanders may order one of their troops to take a drug test, even when the commander is acting on the basis of nothing more than an anonymous telephone tip. Bair vs. U.S. (No. 91-436).