WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court, in a case arising in Los Angeles County of enormous importance to local zoning officials everywhere, ruled today that property owners must be compensated when new restrictions, even temporary ones, bar them from using their land.
By a 6-3 vote, the court said the "just compensation" required by the Constitution's Fifth Amendment for any "taking" of private property for public use applies to zoning laws or other regulations that impose new limits on an owner's use of land.
For example, a property owner whose land is rezoned to prohibit commercial use is entitled to be paid for losses if that rezoning is judged to be a "taking."
The decision is certain to touch off numerous new lawsuits by property owners unhappy with governmental regulation of their land.
Under today's decision, it does not matter whether zoning officials later change their minds and allow commercial development. The property owner still would be entitled to compensation for the period such development was barred.
"Temporary takings which . . . deny a landowner all use of his property are not different in kind from permanent takings, for which the Constitution clearly requires compensation," Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist wrote for the court.
Four other times since 1981 the high court has tried to resolve the important property-rights issue. Each time, the justices backed away from cases granted review after finding procedural problems.
Today's decision was sparked by a dispute in which the First English Evangelical Lutheran Church is seeking compensation from Los Angeles County.
But the ruling did not resolve that particular dispute, sending it back to the California state courts. Still to be decided is whether an interim ordinance denied the church all use of its property--thus constituting a taking that requires compensation.
The Glendale church used to operate a camp, called Lutherglen, on 21 acres it owns in the mountains north of Los Angeles.
Flooding Leveled Buildings
Forest fires in the summer of 1977 burned off much of the vegetation at the camp, and heavy rains the following year caused flooding that leveled the camp's buildings.
Los Angeles County subsequently enacted an interim ordinance that effectively prohibited reconstruction of the buildings.
State courts threw out the church's lawsuit against the county after seemingly assuming that the flood-plain regulation was a "taking" and ruling that California law denies any compensation.
Today's decision said California law cannot deny compensation for such takings.
'Explosion' of Lawsuits
Rehnquist was joined by Justices William J. Brennan Jr., Byron R. White, Thurgood Marshall, Lewis F. Powell Jr. and Antonin Scalia.
Justices John Paul Stevens, Harry A. Blackmun and Sandra Day O'Connor dissented.
Writing for the three, Stevens predicted that the decision will cause an "explosion" of new lawsuits.
"The loose cannon the court fires today is not only unattached to the Constitution but it also takes aim at a long line of precedents in the regulatory takings area," Stevens wrote.