J. Justin Wilson
J. Justin Wilson · October 8, 2019

After living in her one-bedroom, one-bathroom house for nearly 40 years, Richland, Wash. resident Linda Cameron decided it was time for a renovation. Between visits from her friends and family, her modest home was proving to be too cramped, so she worked with a local builder to draw up plans to add a second bedroom and bathroom. The dream she’d had for many years was finally coming true—that is, until the city had its say.

After examining Linda’s plans, Richland’s Public Works Department said she needed to renovate the public street behind her property—at an estimated cost of $60,000—before it would issue a building permit. That meant widening 400 feet of street, building curbs and gutters, and adding sidewalks that don’t connect to any other sidewalks.

She’d be effectively building sidewalks to nowhere.

Linda cannot afford to renovate her home and the city’s streets—and she should not have to do both. Property owners have a constitutional right to use and enjoy their property. And that right includes renovating without facing exorbitant fees for adding something so simple as a second bedroom and bathroom. That’s why Linda has partnered with the Institute for Justice (IJ), a public interest law firm with offices nationwide, including Seattle, to challenge Richland’s unconstitutional condition on Linda’s right to renovate.

“No one should have to pay $60,000 in fees just to add a second bedroom and bathroom,” said Paul Avelar, an attorney at the Institute for Justice, which represents Linda. “The city is holding Linda’s property hostage until she can pay the ransom to improve the city street.”

Linda is the victim of so-called “impact fees”—fees municipalities charge to recoup the impact development has on public infrastructure. For instance, if a developer wanted to build a 100-home subdivision, a city or county could recoup the cost of installing sewer lines or widening adjoining streets to accommodate an increase in traffic. But by law, impact fees can only be charged when there is an actual impact on public infrastructure. Adding a second bedroom to a small home will have absolutely no impact on Richland’s streets or sidewalks.

Impact fee abuse is a nationwide problem. The U.S. Government Accountability Office estimates that 40 percent of counties and 60 percent of communities with populations over 25,000 impose such fees. Some municipalities have even forced property owners to improve land far from their own property to supposedly offset the impact. And cases like Linda’s show that cities are not targeting just big developers.

“Richland’s arbitrary impact fee policy treats ordinary homeowners like Linda and others as if they were major developers, but of course that’s not the case,” said IJ Attorney Patrick Jaicomo. “Rather than encouraging improvements, by imposing outrageously high impact fees on homeowners, Richland’s policy strongly discourages property owners from improving homes in the city.”

By forcing Linda to pay to improve a nearby road as a precondition of obtaining a building permit, Richland is imposing what courts call an “unconstitutional condition” on Linda’s right to use and enjoy her property. Linda, like all Americans, has a right to renovate her home without having to first renovate government property. The Supreme Court has found that while impact fees are generally legal, they must directly relate to the impact of development. And they must be proportional to the cost of the impact. This is, the Court wrote, to “forbid[] the government from engaging in ‘out-and-out … extortion.’”

Having a second bathroom or bedroom will have no impact on the street behind Linda’s property, which is why she’s taken this case to court.

The government’s ability to impose arbitrary fines, fees, and forfeitures represents one of the greatest threats to property rights in America today. The Institute for Justice is at the forefront of standing up for property owners in court. Most recently IJ won a unanimous decision at the Supreme Court determining that the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on excessive fines applies to state laws. And across the country, IJ is litigating cases aimed at curtailing governments’ abilities to use fines and fees to raise revenue or otherwise infringe on property owners’ rights to use and enjoy their property.

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