The Supreme Court of Montana’s opinion in Tai Tam, LLC v. Missoula County, No. DA21-0660 (Nov. 15, 2022) starts off like a somewhat typical land use dispute turned into a constitutional fight. The property owner sought subdivision approvals for a 28-acre parcel to allow residential development, and the County denied the applications because “the proposal failure to adequately mitigate the loss of agricultural soils.” Slip op. at 2.(Oh, and “bird habitat.” Slip op. at 3.)
Next, the complaint, alleging some of the usual claims: due process, equal protection, and takings, and a statutory claim under Montana law. The trial court dismissed all claims: the statutory claims for failure to get in before the 30-day limitations period, and the constitutional property claims based on the court’s conclusion that the plaintiff lacked a “property” interest.
We’ll let you read the part of the opinion in which the court reversed the dismissal of the statutory claim for not filing within 30 days. Short story: the 30-day limitations period doesn’t apply to the type of statutory damage claim that the plaintiff brought. See slip op. at 8 (“Ultimately, we find the plain language of [the statute] is not ambiguous and does not contain a 30-day statute of limitations.”).
Now on to the good stuff – the property interest. The trial court concluded that the plaintiff did not possess a property interest in a subdivision application. Or maybe more precisely, in subdivision approval. The court also rejected the notion that the plaintiff owned the land, and that was sufficient to plead a property interest.
The Supreme Court had a different view. It started with the notion that on a motion to dismiss, every fact is deemed true and all inferences cut in the plaintiff’s favor. Addressing the “threshold” question of whether the plaintiff owns property, the court held that the plaintiff’s “ownership of McCauley Meadows [the land] is sufficient to state a protected property interest and bring § 1983 claims against the Board in this case.” Slip op. at 13.
Rather than apply this interest to Tai Tam’s § 1983 claims, the District Court took Tai Tam’s concession it did not have a protected property interest in the subdivision application and ended its inquiry there. This was in error, as the District Court was required to address whether Tai Tam’s rights inherent in its ownership of McCauley Meadows were violated by the Board’s actions, and inactions, in this case.
Slip op. at 14.
This is significant because it rejects the usual sleight-of-law way that many courts define the property in these type of challenges. Often, courts will define the property as the thing which the plaintiff claims the government wrongly denied. (Here, that would be a grant of the subdivision.) But if you define the property as the very action being challenged — then the owner’s property is shaped almost exclusively by the extent of the regulator’s discretion, and not by the property owner’s rights. Where the focus is on the scope of the government’s discretion to limit property uses and not on the owner’s inherent rights, it shouldn’t be too surprising that most of the time the courts conclude “no property.”
Having concluded that the complaint adequately pleaded a property interest, the court also held that the due process/1983 claim survived because the complaint alleged the County had not provided adequate notice and an opportunity to be heard by denying subdivision approval due to lack of protection for ecological concerns, despite never having adopted any regulations requiring protection of ecological concerns. Slip op. at 17 (“Specifically, Tai Tam asserts the Board has “implemented policies to protect viewsheds, protect generic ecologic values, and protect adjacent property owners, despite having no such adopted regulations.”). In short, it may violate due process if the government is implementing policies “which are not based on any adopted regulations at all.” Id.
And finally, the takings claim. The court concluded that as an “ad hoc” claim, the Penn Central takings claim was adequately pleaded:
Taking the allegations of Tai Tam’s Complaint as true, which we must at this stage in the proceedings, Barthel, ¶ 9, we find Tai Tam has sufficiently pled a takings claim in this case. According to the Complaint, Tai Tam alleges the Board is applying rules and regulations to the development of McCauley Meadows which have not been adopted with proper notice and opportunity to be heard and is unfairly requiring Tai Tam to shoulder the burden of preserving agricultural lands and viewsheds which was not imposed on other landowners. Whether these burdens are so unfair that they require compensation is, again, a question for another day.
Slip op. at 18.
The majority rejected the dissent’s view that because the County retained discretion to deny the subdivision (but wait, we thought subdivision approvals were ministerial?), there could never be a takings claim based on a denial of same. The dissent’s reasoning is one based on its conclusion that the denial of a discretionary permit “does not sufficiently interfere with reasonable investment-backed expectations or economic value under Penn Central.” Slip op. at 18-19. But that, the majority concluded, is a judgment reserved for the trier of fact, not as a matter of law. Penn Central is an ad hoc inquiry. Check out pages 18-20 for more details of the majority’s reasoning (it is definitely worth your time to do so).