Protecting Lake Tahoe -
High court rules for "temporary" protection, but doesn't define
April 26, 2002 - The U.S. Supreme Court's 6-3 ruling in a Lake Tahoe land-use case, announced this week, was played as a victory for regulators and a defeat for property owners. By itself, it was.
A better view is that it provided another detail to constitutional law, which gives property owners a reasonably high but not excessive amount of protection.
The larger question was whether the government has to pay a property owner when it regulates him. Generally, it does not; but if it takes away all commercial use of an owner's land, then it does.
The Tahoe case involved a 36-month moratorium on building around the lake.
Lake Tahoe, at the border of Nevada and California, had been famous for its glassy blue water, but development around the lake was putting in nutrients, causing the lake to become murky. Local government wanted to write a plan to protect the lake.
Justice John Paul Stevens, writing for the court majority, said it was all right for the government to protect the lake, and to stop all development for three years while it wrote a plan. In the long run, a 36-month freeze was not a taking of the owners' rights, but a mere interruption.
Chief Justice William Rehnquist dissented. He wondered whether, under this rule, such interruptions might go on and on. Justice Clarence Thomas, also in dissent, quoted the famous aphorism of Lord Keynes, that in the long run, we are all dead.
Be reasonable here: It is important to protect the lake, and in the short run, owners may have to wait. A short wait need not require payment. As to when short becomes long, the court did not rule.
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