Before 2025 Pasco County must build more and larger roads to accommodate the inevitable increase in automobile traffic. Preferring to avoid the payment of “just compensation” after acquiring the necessary land by eminent domain, Pasco County has hatched a novel and effective but constitutionally problematic idea, a most uncommon regulatory regime that is crowned by Pasco County’s “Right of Way Preservation Ordinance.”
The unremarkable part of the regime designates new “transportation corridors,” which expand certain Pasco County highways. The specific instance contested in this action designates a new transportation corridor that widens State Road 52, an arterial east-west highway in Pasco County, and identifies the boundaries of State Road 52’s future right-of-way. For most landowners, whose land is encroached by the transportation corridor but who have no plans to develop the land adjacent to the encroached land, no immediate consequence (and no constitutional jeopardy) occurs; Pasco County will take the expanded right-of-way—when needed—by eminent domain and will pay “just compensation” as determined by a jury in a Pasco County circuit court.
The remarkable part of the regime and the constitutional mischief appear in the instance of a landowner whose land is encroached by the new transportation corridor but who plans to develop the remaining land, which adjoins the encroachment. The Ordinance requires Pasco County to deny the landowner’s development permit and to forbid development of the land adjoining the new transportation corridor unless the landowner “dedicates” (conveys in fee simple) to Pasco County — for free — the land within the new transportation corridor. In other words, to avoid the nettlesome payment of “just compensation,” the Ordinance empowers Pasco County to purposefully leverage the permitting power to compel a landowner to dedicate land encroached by a transportation corridor. In Pasco County, if there is no free dedication, there is no permit.
As the Pasco County Attorney proudly declares, “The right of way preservation ordinance [ ] drafted and defended by this office (which is one of only a few in the state) saves the County millions of dollars each year in right of way acquisition costs, business damages and severance damages.” This bully result is effected by threatening to deny every proposed new use of private land, from medical clinic to beauty parlor, from restaurant to bait shop, and by coercing everyone, great and small, rich and poor, popular and unpopular, unless the landowner completes the mandatory “voluntary” dedication of real estate….
Because the Ordinance’s modus operandi is not yet common, neither party cites legal authority directly deciding the constitutionality of an identical ordinance. Nonetheless, the features of the Ordinance are striking (and, as the Pasco County Attorney confirms, startlingly effective) and constitutional examination is essential. If constitutional, the Ordinance undoubtedly will become quickly fashionable, as counties seize a singular opportunity to procure land for public use by the thrifty expedient of coerced conveyance rather than by the historically and constitutionally prescribed mechanism of eminent domain (which is, viewed from a county’s vantage, encumbered by the strictures of “due process” and “just compensation” and burdened by both the supervision of an independent judge and the informed discretion of a disinterested jury).
And the court’s conclusion, after many pages of analysis:
Pasco County has enacted an ordinance that effects what, in more plain-spoken times, an informed observer would call a “land grab,” the manifest purpose of which is to evade the constitutional requirement for “just compensation,” that is, to grab land for free. Viewed more microscopically, Pasco County’s Ordinance designs to accost a citizen as the citizen approaches the government to apply for a development permit, designs to withhold from a citizen the development permit unless the citizen yields to an extortionate demand to relinquish the constitutional right of “just compensation,” and designs first and foremost to accumulate — for free — land for which a citizen would otherwise receive just compensation.
Aware undoubtedly of the brazenness of the Ordinance, Pasco County has garnished the Ordinance, has disguised the Ordinance, has planted in the Ordinance a distraction, using the familiar phrase “roughly proportional” or “rough proportionality,” words intended to evoke the soothing reassurance of the Supreme Court’s decision in Dolan, words intended to deploy aggressively the foggy notion that if the words “roughly proportional” appear in a scheme to regulate land, the scheme is constitutional. Not so.
The parties laboriously briefed in this action an array of theories. Both the magistrate judge and I have examined, exhaustively and exhaustingly, the contending theories, briefed and unbriefed. The magistrate judge has opined formidably. Accepting the magistrate judge’s report for the most part but viewing the law in part from a slightly different vantage, I contribute some additional analysis and accept the magistrate judge’s conclusion. Another judge might find the magistrate judge’s opinion or this opinion inexact in this or that particular of constitutional law. Nonetheless, this Ordinance is an unmistakable, abusive, and coercive misapplication of governmental power, perpetrated to cynically evade the Constitution. The Ordinance cannot stand, whether for the precise reasons stated here or for a related reason.