The Stanford Law Review Online has just published an Essay by Richard A. Epstein entitled Physical and Regulatory Takings: One Distinction Too Many. In light of Harmon v. Kimmel—a case challenging New York’s rent control statute on petition to the Supreme Court—Epstein provides a succinct economic takedown of uncompensated regulatory takings in four distinct areas: rent control, support easements, zoning, and landmark preservation statutes. In suggesting a unified approach to eminent domain whether the taking is physical or regulatory, he writes:
Unfortunately, modern takings law is in vast disarray because the Supreme Court deals incorrectly with divided interests under the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment, which reads: “nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.” The Supreme Court’s regnant distinction in this area is between physical and regulatory takings. In a physical taking, the government, or some private party authorized by the government, occupies private land in whole or in part. In the case of a per se physical taking, the government must pay the landowner full compensation for the value of the land occupied. Regulatory takings, in contrast, leave landowners in possession, but subject them to restrictions on the ability to use, develop, or dispose of the land. Under current law, regulatory takings are only compensable when the government cannot show some social justification, broadly conceived, for its imposition.
Thus, under current takings law, a physical occupation with trivial economic consequences gets full compensation. In contrast, major regulatory initiatives rarely require a penny in compensation for millions of dollars in economic losses. . . .
The judicial application of takings law to these four different partial interests in land thus destroys the social value created by private transactions that create multiple interests in land. The unprincipled line between occupation and regulation is then quickly manipulated to put rent control, mineral rights, and air rights in the wrong category, where the weak level of protection against regulatory takings encourages excessive government activity. The entire package lets complex legal rules generate the high administrative costs needed to run an indefensible and wasteful system. There are no partial measures that can fix this level of disarray. There is no intellectual warrant for making the categorical distinction between physical and regulatory takings, so that distinction should be abolished. A unified framework should be applied to both cases, where in each case the key question is whether the compensation afforded equals or exceeds the value of the property interest taken. The greatest virtue of this distinction lies not in how it resolves individual cases before the courts. Rather, it lies in blocking the adoption of multiple, mischievous initiatives that should not have been enacted into law in the first place. But in the interim, much work remains to be done. A much-needed first step down that road depends on the Supreme Court granting certiorari in Harmon v. Kimmel.
Read the full article, Physical and Regulatory Takings: One Distinction Too Many by Richard A. Epstein, at the Stanford Law Review Online.