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California First English Evangelical Lutheran Church of Glendale v. County of Los Angeles - Significance

court property taking ordinance

The ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court clarified criteria which defined differences and actions in temporary and permanent takings.

First English Evangelical Lutheran Church of Glendale bought a parcel of land in 1957. The parcel consisted of 21 acres of which 12 acres were flat land in a valley of the Middle Fork of Mill Creek in the Angeles National Forest. Later, the appellant, used this ground to build up a camp called "Lutherglen," which was used as a resort and recreation center for handicapped children. The camp was situated on both sides of Mill Creek. In July of 1977, a large forest fire destroyed a vast area of woods upstream from Lutherglen; unfortunately, the fire increased the possibility of flooding in Mill Creek Canyon. In February of 1978, a heavy storm poured 11 inches of rain, and the prognosis became reality. Destruction of vegetation on the hillsides of Mill Creek meant that runoff from the rain overflowed river banks and destroyed the buildings in Lutherglen.

Subsequently, in January 1979, Los Angeles County approved "interim ordinance" No. 11855. It was a legislative act that regulated new construction and reconstruction of real estate in Mill Creek Canyon. This regulation prohibited such actions in an area the county of Los Angeles believed was dangerous and sensitive to flooding. To preserve public health and safety, the county ordered that the ordinance had to be strictly, immediately enforced.

Within a month after the interim ordinance was adopted, First English Evangelical Lutheran Church of Glendale brought suit in a California court. The suit maintained two claims against the County Flood Control District and the County of Los Angeles, and under each claim, the appellant demanded just compensation for loss caused through denial of access and use of Lutherglen. The argument supporting the first claim cited section 835 of the California Government Code that stipulated "a governmental entity may be liable for injury caused by a dangerous condition of its property." The second part of their claim maintained that the ordinance denied the appellant use of church property. The appellant demanded "inverse condemnation" (an action that a property owner can claim when government has allegedly taken property without use of formal "eminent domain" proceedings). However, Los Angeles County's counter argument cited what they believed was precedence set by the Supreme Court of California in Agins v. Tiburon (1979). In that ruling, the court held that a landowner could not use inverse condemnation as a legal remedy in a "regulatory taking" in the state of California. Further, any form of compensation was not appropriate so long as an ordinance or regulation was not ruled as excessive in proceedings of action for declaratory relief or a writ of mandamus and only if the government persisted in enforcing the regulation. The county argued that as long as the ordinance in question was not judged as extreme and the government regulation was a temporary measure, then compensation was not obligatory. The California court ruled consistently with Agins and found "irrelevant" the claim of First English Evangelical Lutheran Church of Glendale.

On appeal filed by the appellant in the California Court of Appeals, the court also responded favorably to Los Angeles County's arguments and reliance on Agins. Believing the appellant wanted both compensation for loss of use for all property and affirming precedence set by the California Supreme Court ruling, the court of appeals ruled against the church because, according to Agins, compensation "was limited to nonmonetary relief." Unsatisfied with the ruling, the church appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Their writ invited the Supreme Court to overrule the California Supreme Court's decision in Agins which held that the state was not obliged to compensate for property that had been taken by "temporary" regulations.

In presenting the case for the appellant to the U.S. Supreme Court, counsel for the appellant requested a review of Agins due to the reliance of the California courts on that decision to make their rulings. However, counsel also pointed out that another, consistent objection of the lower courts was that the appellant's conduct in filing their complaint was in collision with required legal procedure according to Agins. Counsel also pointed out that neither court questioned that a taking had actually occurred nor that the owners had been deprived of total use of their property. Notwithstanding, the appellant's attorney claimed the state had the right to enact flood safety regulations, but such action was subject to the Just Compensation Clause of the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Moreover, even if Los Angeles County withdrew the ordinance at issue, the church should be compensated for value loss during the period after the ordinance went into effect. Counsel reasoned that because almost nine years elapsed since the ordinance went into effect, the "temporary" taking in the owner's view was not much different from a permanent taking.

In presenting arguments for Los Angeles County, the appellee's attorney questioned whether the U.S. Supreme Court had jurisdiction. Conceding that the Court could find the case within its legal mandate, counsel argued that precedence set by the California Supreme Court in the Agins decision was consistent with the U.S. Supreme Court's rulings in similar cases, MacDonald, Sommer & Frates v. Yolo County (1986), Williamson County Regional Planning Commission v. Hamilton Bank (1985), and San Diego Gas & Electric Co. v. San Diego (1981). Accordingly, the Supreme Court of California held that the remedy for the alleged temporary property taking was limited to non-monetary relief. Counsel also stipulated that there existed a difference between permanent and temporary taking because the temporary ordinance did not deny use of the total property nor was the ordinance (hence the taking) intended to be permanent. Neither was the means by which First English Evangelical Lutheran Church of Glendale sought redress proper legal remedy according to Agins. The appellant's inverse condemnation claim should have taken the form of a declaratory relief or writ of mandamus to satisfy proper legal protocol. Furthermore, when (as Los Angeles County claimed) public health and safety were at stake, government had the legal power to prohibit dangerous use of land. Thus the county should not be penalized for the action undertaken to preserve population from the risk from the continued use of Lutherglen.

The Court ruled that the matter did belong within its mandate and jurisdiction. In writing for the majority, Chief Justice Rehnquist saw no similarity in the cases cited by the appellee, (MacDonald, Williamson County, and San Diego) and thus could not uphold the rule set forth in the Agins case. Further, the alleged taking deprived the owner of all use of their property, and the issue was a subject to the Just Compensation Clause. Justice Rehnquist held that the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution did not prohibit a state from exercising its right of eminent domain, but that such takings had to be balanced with the rights of an owner whose property had been taken and thus entitled to just compensation even if only for the period "before the courts finally determine that the regulation effects a taking of property."

The Court went on to define the nature of permanent and temporary takings. The decision ruled that if a temporary taking denied an owner of all use of property, then such a taking could not be considered different from a permanent taking. Moreover, even if government decided to withdraw its challenged regulation or ordinance, just compensation had to be paid for the time the challenged ordinance was effective and for the period of time the owner was denied total use of the property. Specifically, the Court held that withdrawal of the regulation, without just compensation, would not be a just remedy for a property taking.

In writing the dissenting opinion, Justice Stevens did not agree that the challenged regulation represented "an unconstitutional taking of Lutherglen;" the action, therefore, was not subject to the limitations of the Just Compensation Clause. The minority opinion expressed alarm that the Court's ruling could inspire a spate of litigation because, in effect, the majority ruling suggested that all ordinances could conceivably be interpreted as a taking even if the regulation was only in effect for a limited time. Stevens felt that the appellant should have used all legal avenues and means available in the state of California to attempt to get the objectionable ordinance rescinded. Furthermore, such actions were mandatory before submitting the case to the U.S. Supreme Court to determine if the state proceedings constitute "a temporary taking of property without just compensation." (Interestingly, this view was also supported by majority Justices Blackmun and O'Connor.) Ultimately, Stevens flatly disagreed with the majority opinion that the Just Compensation Clause was applicable to the case as it was presented before the Court. He felt that an ordinance or regulation did not constitute a taking protection if there remained value for most of the property in question. Thus, "improperly motivated, unfairly conducted, or unnecessarily protracted governmental decision-making" taken to regulate the use of private property, as Lutherglen's property, should be decided by applying the Due Process Clause.

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