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HUDSON, Wisc. — The U.S. Supreme Court will decide if a family can sell a piece of property that’s been in the family for 57 years.
The decision in a case called Murr v. Wisconsin could impact the rights of property owners all over the country.
William and Margaret Murr purchased a 1 ¼ acre lot in 1960 and built a cabin, and then three years later bought a similar-sized property adjacent to them, the Leader Telegram reported. Three decades later, the couple gave the land to their children. The family subsequently asked the county about selling the vacant lot, but the county blocked the sale because of a rule requiring lots to have one acre of buildable land. Even though the vacant lot is about 1 ¼ acres, its buildable space is much smaller – less than one acre — after deducting the slope and wetlands area, the newspaper reported.
The family had hoped to use the funds from the sale to pay for renovations to the cabin.
“All along we were receiving a property tax statement for that land, land that the county assessed as buildable property,” their daughter, Donna Murr, told the newspaper. “It was assessed at $400,000 and we paid $4,000 to $6,000 a year on it and didn’t think twice about it, because that’s what we were told it was worth.”
The problem: When her parents bought the land, the vacant lot was considered acceptable for building, but county ordinances later changed.
“An assessor told us then that the extra land was basically worth about $40,000, meaning we lost $360,000 in value because of the ordinance change,” Murr said. “If you do the math, since we owned the property, we paid $78,000 more in taxes than we should have. It just seems so unfair. If we hadn’t gone in, they’d still be assessing us. They told us it was our job to know about the ordinance.”
A group called the Pacific Legal Foundation sued the county and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources on the Murr’s behalf, claiming the government had violated the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution by taking the Murrs’ property without offering reasonable compensation. Lower courts rejected that argument, prompting an appeal to the Supremes.
“We aren’t going to be allowed to sell the second parcel, unless we tore down the cabin next door,” Murr said on a conference call with reporters. “We were stunned. We couldn’t believe that the government would happily take our property tax dollars for 50 years, and then deny us the basic property rights here.”
If the Supreme Court rules in the favor of the Murrs, it could clear the way for hundreds of similar suits across the country.
“This case has broad implications, because the Murrs are far from alone in confronting this issue,” John Groen, an attorney for the Foundation, told Reason. “The problem of bureaucrats and courts defining the parcel as a whole to include adjoining lots in common ownership presents itself throughout the country.”
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