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The other big Supreme Court decision

Lost amid all the press attention on the Paula Jones case was another big victory by a woman who fought hard to get a hearing by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Her name is Bernadine Suitum. She’s 83 years old and lives in the quiet Sacramento suburb of Orangevale, Calif. Back in 1972, she and her late husband spent most of their life savings to buy a half acre of property in Incline Village, near Lake Tahoe, for a future retirement home.

Only in 1989 did Mrs. Suitum try to develop the land. She was told, however, that the small parcel was in a “stream environment zone.” Hmmmm. Sounds pretty bucolic, doesn’t it? Kind of makes you think of Yellowstone or Yosemite or some other natural wonder.

But, the truth it, Mrs. Suitum’s property is in a section of Incline Village that has much more in common with the typical California suburb (even though it’s on the Nevada side of the border) than with some rustic, environmentally sensitive Eden.

Mrs. Suitum’s attitude about all this was pretty healthy, though. She told the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency that if they wanted to classify her land as environmentally sensitive and forbid development, they could just compensate her for it, as called for in the U.S. Constitution. The bureaucrats refused — at least with an offer of cash. They insisted she sell the land.

But, clearly, the planning agency had devalued the property by restricting its use. Mrs. Suitum decided to fight the bureaucrats in court. Beginning in 1991, she took them on at one level or another. In 1994, the 9nth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the planning agency. Things did not look too bright for Mrs. Suitum back then. Yet, she continued to battle for her little piece of land and the retirement for which she and her husband had worked so hard and so long.

The planning agency, acknowledging its responsibility under the Constitution’s Fifth Amendment, did offer Mrs. Suitum “transferable development rights” — or TDRs. In theory, Mrs. Suitum could have sold the development rights assigned to her property — valued at $56,000 — to another Tahoe property owner whose land is not classified as environmentally sensitive.

But Suitum’s lawyer, James Burling, says these development rights are not real. They are fictitious and have no intrinsic value.

“TRPA (the planning agency) argued all along that Mrs. Suitum shouldn’t be allowed to set foot in court until she tries to deal her development rights, and the Supreme Court clearly rebuffed them,” said Burling.

Burling estimates the current market value of Mrs. Suitum’s property would be $200,000 if it was not designated as environetally sensitive. The planning agency says the parcel is worth on $15,000.

Then, Monday, Mrs. Suitum won her battle at the highest court in the land. The victory she won is not just her’s, but it is a victory for property owners and future property owners through the United States. What exactly did she win? The right to go to court again and fight for just compensation for her property. But, these days, that is a milestone.

“More than any other case, Mrs. Suitum’s case is a wake-up call that ordinary Americans can be a victim to a regulatory nightmare,” said Nanci Marzulla, president and legal counsel of Defenders of Property Rights, a Washington legal defense foundation.

The sad part of this story is that Mrs. Suitum, whose health is fragile, may never live to see the legacy of her heroic fight with the bureaucrats. They have already succeeded in depriving her of her retirement dreams. Why do they keep on fighting this poor, little old widow? Because this battle is bigger than a half acre in Incline Village.