WASHINGTON - Florida bureaucrats say it was perfectly legal for them to ask a landowner near Orlando to cough up as much as $150,000 to help them preserve distant wetlands.
But a lawyer fighting them told the Supreme Court Tuesday that the move was a clear and unconstitutional case of government using its permitting power to shake down a U.S. citizen.
The Supreme Court case, Koontz v. St. Johns River Water Management District, could affect the rights of every property owner in America who needs a government permit.
The case began when Coy Koontz Sr. bought 15 acres of property near Orlando, dreaming that its development would someday finance his retirement.
Instead, he ended up in a battle with the government that lasted until he died in 2000. His son Coy Koontz Jr. has now taken his case all the way to the Supreme Court.
"If you own land in this country, the outcome of this case will affect you," Koontz Jr. said outside the court building.
At first Florida regulators asked that in exchange for getting a permit to develop his land, Koontz Sr. give up 11 of his 15 acres for conservation. The elder Koontz accepted.
"He was only allowed to build on about a quarter of his property. But that wasn't enough for them," lawyer Paul Beard, with the Pacific Legal Foundation, said. The group is representing Koontz before the Supreme Court.
"He did give up some concessions, and then they just kept adding to it," Koontz Jr. said of his father.
The government asked Koontz to pay for as much as $150,000 in improvements to some of their wetlands seven miles away from his property. He refused.
"And he got to a point where he said, 'That's it,'" Koontz Jr. said, explaining why the Florida regulators wouldn't give his father a permit and why he sued them.
The Supreme Court has already ruled that it is unconstitutional for bureaucrats to use the permitting process to arm-twist concessions out of property owners and fund pet projects.
One of those desperately interested in the outcome of this case is Karen Harned, with the National Federation of Independent Business. She said bureaucrats are using their power to grant permits unconstitutionally.
"They can basically hold you captive and make as your ransom that you do whatever they say," she stated.
She said for many small business owners their property is their biggest asset. She complained that allowing the government to tie up that property on threat of financial penalty is very detrimental.
"The government can't demand money out of you, can't exact things of value from you in the permit process," Beard said. "You should be able to use your land reasonably without being extorted."
But as Coy Koontz's father found out, bureaucrats refuse to accept most limits on what they can demand in exchange for permits.
"The government wants that flexibility to tell me what to do, how to do it, and then extort money from me in order to do it," Beard said.
The Obama administration sees this flexibility as so crucial for government bureaucrats, it joined with Florida and 18 other states to argue against Koontz at the Supreme Court.
That angers the Florida man who is now fighting his father's 19-year-old fight.
"The government at times can be a creeping blob, absorbing your rights," Koontz Jr. said. "And hopefully, this will at least put a halt to that."