Supremes hammer local government 'extortion' of homeowner

 April 14, 2024

This story was originally published by the WND News Center.

The U.S. Supreme Court has called out a California county for what amounts to "extortion" of a homeowner who bought land there and built a home in which to raise his grandson.

The ruling in Sheetz v. El Dorado County returns the dispute to the lower courts for them to determine what traffic impact a single home will have.

Earlier, county officials, without determining how much traffic would be impacted by the construction of one home – or even determining there would be an impact – charged the homeowner. George Sheetz, more than $23,000 for a building permit.

He paid, to obtain permission for his home, but ten protested.

According to a report from the Pacific Legal Foundation, which represented Sheetz, in 2016 Sheetz bought a vacant lot in rural El Dorado County and planned to build a small home where he and his wife would live and raise their grandson.

But was ordered to pay the $23,000 by county officials who "claimed he was required to pay under local legislation that sought to shift the cost of addressing existing and future road deficiencies onto new development."

The county, in effect, demanded the fee "without any evidence tying George’s new home to any specific public costs or impacts."

The decision struck down that development.

'When the government withholds or conditions a building permit for reasons unrelated to its legitimate land-use interests, those actions amount to extortion," the ruling said.

PLF said, "The court ruled that the case must return to the lower court to determine whether the $23,000 fee was an exaction subject to the unconstitutional conditions doctrine. If so, the lower court must determine whether the fee was disproportionate to the traffic impact caused by a modest manufactured home in a rural area and thus, unconstitutional. "

Justice Amy Coney Barrett said, "In sum, there is no basis for affording property rights less protection in the hands of legislators than administrators. The Takings Clause applies equally to both—which means that it prohibits legislatures and agencies alike from imposing unconstitutional conditions on land-use permits."

PLF said the 9-0 decision was a major victory for property rights.

"Holding building permits hostage in exchange for excessive development fees is obviously extortion," said Paul Beard, partner at Pierson Ferdinand. "We are thrilled that the court agreed and put a stop to a blatant attempt to skirt the Fifth Amendment’s prohibition against taking private property without just compensation."

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