483 U. S. 825
June 26, 1987
The Nollan family sought to tear down a small house on California beachfront property, and build a much bigger one which would block view of the ocean. State regulators conditioned the right to build the new house on the Nollans granting the public easement to pass across the beach. The state claimed this was necessary because the bigger house served to separate the general public from seeing the ocean. The Nollans protested that the regulations violated the takings clause.
The Court ruled 5-4 that the condition was invalid. Scalia, writing for the Court, conceded that the government could in theory condition rebuilding on the granting of an easement. However, there would have to be an appropriate nexus between the condition and the government’s goal. But there was no such nexus, and Scalia explained this more succinctly than I ever could. “It is quite impossible to understand how a requirement that people already on the public beaches be able to walk across the Nollans’ property reduces any obstacles to viewing the beach created by the new house.” To buttress his conclusion that the beach viewing goal had nothing to do with the easement requirement, Scalia string cited over 20 state and federal decisions!
Brennan’s dissent, joined by Marshall, was a great grab bag of objections. The California Constitution, he said, granted citizens a right of access to waters that was superior to any private property rights. The Nollans knew about the easement restriction when they bought the property, and thus essentially assented to adhering to it. Lack of visual access to a beach is alleviated by greater physical access, and thus there was in a fact a close nexus between the goal and the regulation. Finally, Brennan said that requiring such a close fit did not comport with a good deal of takings clause precedent.
Blackmun’s brief dissent stated the he could see a clear correlation between the regulatory goal and the burden imposed. Stevens, joined by Blackmun, lamented that the decision was the inevitable result of the Lutherglen case. His opinion was a thinly veiled ‘I-told-you-so’ directed at Brennan and Marshall. It really is quite amazing how statist the dissenters were. Whether or not they admitted it, a total blank regulatory check was what they wished to give the government.