Two Steps Forward and One Step Back: Has the Supreme Court’s Decision in Tahoe-Sierra Preservation Council Unnecessarily Muddled the Waters of Takings Law Analysis or Restored Penn Central to a Place of Prominence?

Note By: C. Phillip Wheeler, Jr.; JNREL Vol. 19 No. 1

Abstract By: Erin M. Boggs, Staff Member

Few issues rile the general public more quickly than the idea that the government can, whether through regulation or a physical taking, deprive a property owner of the ability to do what he wishes with a parcel of property. The Supreme Court has approached this problem in a variety of ways, and integrating these multiple approaches into a coherent view of regulatory takings law has proven difficult. C. Phillip Wheeler, however, closely examines the Court's decisions in this area to offer a somewhat historical perspective and a more firm grasp on the state of the law. He contends that Tahoe-Sierra Pres? Council v. Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, 535 U.S. 305 (2002), offers a firm reaffirmation of some precedent and severely limits others, hopefully clarifying the law in this area.

Tahoe-Sierra involved the interaction of property owners surrounding the highly-visited Lake Tahoe and the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency. In response to concerns about runoff into the lake, TRPA placed a moratorium on new building in the area from August 24, 1981 to August 26, 1983. Tahoe Sierra, 535 U.S. at 306. A second, more restrictive moratorium went into effect August 27, 1983 and lasted until April 25, 1984. Id. The majority of the court found that the moratorium did temporarily strip property owners of the development rights of the subject of the regulation. Id. Nevertheless, despite this finding, the Supreme Court ultimately held that the owners had not suffered a taking, relying particularly on the temporary nature of the regulation. Id. at 332.

Wheeler contends that the Court in reaching this holding clarified the test required by the law when it relied on its holdings in Penn Central and its progeny and severely limited the Lucas line of cases. Penn Central Transportation Company v. New York City, 434 U.S. 104 (1978). In order to reach this conclusion, he traces the development of the law through the modified twelve-factor test of Penn Central and the exceptions carved out in Lucas v. South Carolina Coastal Council, 505 U.S. 1003 (1992). Wheeler's careful examination of the opinions in the regulatory takings cases, including concurring and dissenting opinions shows both the confusion of the law and the necessity of its clarification in Tahoe-Sierra. By showing the Court's historical arc and close examination of the principles that Tahoe-Sierra reaffirms, Wheeler offers a guide for understanding the narrow reach of the Lucas test and the primacy of the Penn Central test in regulatory takings law. Although Penn Central represents a flexible factor test that can have variable results, this coherent presentation of the law can assist scholars and practitioners alike in evaluating their actions by at least showing the Court's apparent choice of the Penn Central test for all regulatory takings cases.