Lucas v. South Carolina Coastal Council,
505 U.S. 1003 (1992)

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CERTIORARI TO THE SUPREME COURT OF SOUTH CAROLINA No. 91-453. Argued March 2, 1992-Decided June 29, 1992

In 1986, petitioner Lucas bought two residential lots on a South Carolina barrier island, intending to build single-family homes such as those on the immediately adjacent parcels. At that time, Lucas's lots were not subject to the State's coastal zone building permit requirements. In 1988, however, the state legislature enacted the Beachfront Management Act, which barred Lucas from erecting any permanent habitable structures on his parcels. He filed suit against respondent state agency, contending that, even though the Act may have been a lawful exercise of the State's police power, the ban on construction deprived him of all "economically viable use" of his property and therefore effected a "taking" under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments that required the payment of just compensation. See, e. g., Agins v. City of Tiburon, 447 U. S. 255, 261. The state trial court agreed, finding that the ban rendered Lucas's parcels "valueless," and entered an award exceeding $1.2 million. In reversing, the State Supreme Court held itself bound, in light of Lucas's failure to attack the Act's validity, to accept the legislature's "uncontested ... findings" that new construction in the coastal zone threatened a valuable public resource. The court ruled that, under the Mugler v. Kansas, 123 U. S. 623, line of cases, when a regulation is designed to prevent "harmful or noxious uses" of property akin to public nuisances, no compensation is owing under the Takings Clause regardless of the regulation's effect on the property's value.


1. Lucas's takings claim is not rendered unripe by the fact that he may yet be able to secure a special permit to build on his property under an amendment to the Act passed after briefing and argument before the State Supreme Court, but prior to issuance of that court's opinion. Because it declined to rest its judgment on ripeness grounds, preferring to dispose of the case on the merits, the latter court's decision precludes, both practically and legally, any takings claim with respect to Lucas's pre amendment deprivation. Lucas has properly alleged injury in fact with respect to this pre amendment deprivation, and it would not accord with sound process in these circumstances to insist that he pursue the late-created procedure before that component of his takings claim can be considered ripe. Pp. 1010-1014.


2. The State Supreme Court erred in applying the "harmful or noxious uses" principle to decide this case. Pp. 1014-1032.

(a) Regulations that deny the property owner all "economically viable use of his land" constitute one of the discrete categories of regulatory deprivations that require compensation without the usual casespecific inquiry into the public interest advanced in support of the restraint. Although the Court has never set forth the justification for this categorical rule, the practical-and economic- equivalence of physically appropriating and eliminating all beneficial use of land counsels its preservation. Pp. 1014-1019.

(b) A review of the relevant decisions demonstrates that the "harmful or noxious use" principle was merely this Court's early formulation of the police power justification necessary to sustain (without compensation) any regulatory diminution in value; that the distinction between regulation that "prevents harmful use" and that which "confers benefits" is difficult, if not impossible, to discern on an objective, value-free basis; and that, therefore, noxious-use logic cannot be the basis for departing from this Court's categorical rule that total regulatory takings must be compensated. Pp. 1020-1026.

(c) Rather, the question must turn, in accord with this Court's "takings" jurisprudence, on citizens' historic understandings regarding the content of, and the State's power over, the "bundle of rights" that they acquire when they take title to property. Because it is not consistent with the historical compact embodied in the Takings Clause that title to real estate is held subject to the State's subsequent decision to eliminate all economically beneficial use, a regulation having that effect cannot be newly decreed, and sustained, without compensation's being paid the owner. However, no compensation is owed-in this setting as with all takings claims-if the State's affirmative decree simply makes explicit what already inheres in the title itself, in the restrictions that background principles of the State's law of property and nuisance already place upon land ownership. Cf. Scranton v. Wheeler, 179 U. S. 141, 163. Pp. 1027-1031.

(d) Although it seems unlikely that common-law principles would have prevented the erection of any habitable or productive improvements on Lucas's land, this state-law question must be dealt with on remand. To win its case, respondent cannot simply proffer the legislature's declaration that the uses Lucas desires are inconsistent with the public interest, or the conclusory assertion that they violate a commonlaw maxim such as sic utere tuo ut alienum non laedas, but must identify background principles of nuisance and property law that prohibit the uses Lucas now intends in the property's present circumstances. P.1031.

304 S. C. 376, 404 S. E. 2d 895, reversed and remanded.

Full Text of Opinion

Primary Holding

A taking that requires fair compensation exists when the government creates a regulation that negates all economically beneficial use of a property, and state nuisance law would have permitted such a use.


Lucas paid $975,000 for two lots on the Isle of Palms in South Carolina, where he intended to build single-family homes. None of the local authorities had yet imposed any restrictions on the use of the property, which stood on unstable ground subject to flooding and erosion. Two years later, the state created the Beachfront Management Act, designed to halt the march of erosion on South Carolina beaches. It imposed a blanket rule against building any habitable improvements on property that was closer to the ocean than a certain line on the Isle of Palms that connected points particularly vulnerable to erosion. The prohibited area included the lots that Lucas had bought, although he had not built houses on them yet.

Lucas argued that the law resulted in a government taking of his property without just compensation, although he did not argue that the law itself was unconstitutional. He succeeded in the lower court, which imposed a damages award of over $1.2 million on the state, but the South Carolinea Supreme Court disagreed and withheld compensation.



  • Antonin Scalia (Author)
  • William Hubbs Rehnquist
  • Byron Raymond White
  • Clarence Thomas

Scalia identified two common situations in which courts typically find that a taking has occurred. These are when the government has caused a physical incursion onto private property and when the government has acted in a way that removes all economic or productive use from the land. He found that there was an exception to the second category when the activity on the land constitutes a nuisance that causes harm to the general public. Some of the Court's earlier decisions had applied a test for these types of takings that investigated whether the state regulation advanced an legitimate government interest related to land use.

However, Scalia felt that it was time to depart from this style of analysis. He argued that the state could justify virtually any land use regulation under the theory that it would further the public good or combat a public harm, since there is a virtually infinite range of ways in which the public good may be compromised, depending on the perspective of whoever is evaluating it. As a result, he proposed a stricter standard in which compensation would be required for the deprivation of all economically beneficial use of property unless the public harm consisted of something that already was illegal under property law on nuisances. He remanded the case to the state court so that the state could have an opportunity to identify a pre-existing law that Lucas would violate if he developed his property.


  • Anthony M. Kennedy (Author)

Pointing out that Scalia had identified a standard but not actually resolved the case, Kennedy was less certain from the evidence presented whether Lucas actually intended to develop the property. He also felt that Scalia had gone too far in assuming that the property had lost all of its economic value without enough information in the record to support that conclusion. Kennedy would have preferred a more subjective analysis that would determine value based on the reasonable expectations of the property owner.


  • Harry Andrew Blackmun (Author)

Blackmun was satisfied that the regulation was enacted to protect the property and lives of the state's citizens from the serious threat of erosion. He felt that Lucas had not presented any compelling evidence to challenge that rule. Blackmun also suggested that the majority had erroneously shifted the burden of proof in Fifth Amendment cases from the property owner to the state, which now was required to justify the judgments of its legislature.


  • John Paul Stevens (Author)

Stevens argued that the majority had adopted too stark a rule and too narrow an exception to it. He observed that it was unfair to absolve the state of paying any compensation to a property owner who had lost nearly all of the property's value while requiring the state to pay full compensation to a property owner who had lost all of the property's value. The majority's reliance on traditional common law principles, according to Stevens, also prevented states from modernizing those principles according to the evolving needs of their citizens.


  • David H. Souter (Author)

Identifying key holes in the record, Souter felt that the case should not have been heard by the court because it did not have enough evidence to make an informed decision.

Case Commentary

This case produced the "total takings" standard under which courts evaluate whether a government's taking of property has eradicated its value for the private property owner. The state ultimately paid compensation to the property owner and sold the lots for development.

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