The Supreme Court refused Tuesday to expand Americans' property rights, reaffirming that the government can temporarily block building to protect the environment or prevent overdevelopment.
Justices ruled against a group of landowners who have been barred from building retirement homes near Lake Tahoe because of environmental concerns.
While not unsympathetic to the aging landowners, some of whom have died during the two-decade legal battle, the Supreme Court said that state legislatures — not courts — can control limits on temporary zoning ordinances.
Justice John Paul Stevens, writing for the 6-3 court, said a court-mandated time frame "would likely create added pressure on decision makers to reach a quick resolution of land-use questions, (and) it would only serve to disadvantage those landowners and interest groups who are not as organized or familiar with the planning process."
Justices had been asked to decide whether the Constitution's "takings" clause, which prohibits taking someone's land without compensation, applies to temporary government land-use bans.
The court's most conservative members said it applies.
"Because the prohibition on development of nearly six years in this case cannot be said to resemble any `implied limitation' of state property law, it is a taking that requires compensation," Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist wrote in a dissent, joined by Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.
The chief justice said Lake Tahoe is a national treasure, but that a few citizens should not have to pay for its protection.
At issue were the rights of the hundreds of people who bought property on Lake Tahoe and have waited for permission to build there. The Tahoe Regional Planning Agency imposed a construction moratorium because of concerns about burgeoning development that was changing the color of Lake Tahoe, which is on the California-Nevada border.
The Supreme Court dealt only with a narrow issue of whether a temporary moratorium amounted to a taking and considered only part of the time that development was limited. They affirmed an appeals court decision against the landowners, who had sought $27 million in damages.
The case has a long court history, going before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals four times. The Bush administration had backed the agency.
The Supreme Court dealt with a similar case before, deciding in 1987 that governments do not have to pay for temporary takings if they are normal and relate to the routine permitting process.