Our Amicus Brief on the Property Rights of Private Planned Communities

The Cato Institute recently filed an amicus brief urging the Supreme Court to hear Mariner’s Cove Townhomes Association v. United States , a case addressing an important issue involving the property rights of private planned communities. The brief was filed on behalf of Cato and several property scholars, including Richard Epstein (Chicago and NYU), James W. Ely (Vanderbilt), Donald Kochan (Chapman), my George Mason colleagues Adam Mossoff, and Alex Tabarrok, and myself. Here is the petition for certiorari written by University of Virginia law professor Daniel Ortiz and the UVA Supreme Court Lititgation Clinic.

Ilya Shapiro of Cato summarizes the important issue at stake in the case:

The U.S. housing market has seen a major shift in the past 30 years: the rise of the community association. In 1970, only 1 percent of U.S. homes were community association members; today, more than half of new housing is subject to association membership, including condominium buildings. These organizations provide substantial benefits, including community facilities, maintenance, and rules designed to preserve property values, in exchange for assessment fees….

Mariner’s Cove Townhomes Association v. United States affects the rights of the more than 60 million Americans currently living in these associations. This case arises from the federal government’s taking 14 of 58 townhouses from one development in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Mariner’s Cove owned a right to collect dues that was appended to those 14… homes, and sued the government for extinguishing that valuable right without just compensation under the Fifth Amendment’s Takings Clause.

In contrast to most lower courts, however, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit held that “the right to collect assessments, or real covenants generally” are not subject to Takings Clause analysis. In other words, the government can take those rights without paying anything to the owners. Cato and a group of esteemed professors, including Richard Epstein, James W. Ely Jr., and Ilya Somin, has submitted an amicus brief supporting Mariner’s Cove and arguing that the Supreme Court should take the case to clarify whether community association fees are compensable property under the Fifth Amendment.

Without such clarification, these beneficial private communities will be undercut. Such associations often shoulder the burden of providing and maintaining infrastructure, services, and utilities, which allows for more diverse and customizable amenities for homeowners than if those decisions were left with remote municipal governments….

The perverse implications of the Fifth Circuit’s ruling are clear: it would allow.. local governments to require the creation of a community association, benefit from the resulting private delivery of services while collecting taxes from its members, and later take the property without even paying back the very fees that enabled the government’s benefit. And the Fifth Circuit’s holding affects more than simply community associations. The court’s reference to “real covenants generally” implicates conservation easements, for example, which restrict the development and use of land for preserving the land’s natural, historic, or ecological features. This precedent would make association land an attractive option for uncompensated government takings.

As the cert. petition makes clear, the Fifth Circuit’s decision is at odds with that of numerous other federal and state courts, thereby exacerbating a major circuit split. The Fifth Circuit reached the same conclusion on this issue as the D.C. Circuit did in a 1934 decision. But three other circuits and seventeen state Supreme Courts have concluded the opposite. There is therefore a deep conflict in the lower courts.