Private Property

Lucas v. South Carolina Coastal Council (1992)

Case background and primary source documents concerning the Supreme Court case of Lucas v. South Carolina Coastal Council. Dealing with the “regulatory taking” of property, this lesson asks students how much they think the government should be able to regulate property before it becomes a “taking” requiring just compensation.

Founding Principles

Inalienable / Natural Rights image

Inalienable / Natural Rights

Freedoms which belong to us by nature and can only be justly taken away through due process.

Limited Government image

Limited Government

Citizens are best able to pursue happiness when government is confined to those powers which protect their life, liberty, and property.

Property Rights image

Property Rights

The natural right of all individuals to create, obtain, and control their possessions, beliefs, faculties, and opinions, as well as the fruits of their labor.

Case Background

David Lucas bought some beachfront property in South Carolina in 1986, and planned to build two homes on the land. Two years later, the South Carolina legislature banned new construction on the land Lucas had purchased, in an effort to combat beach erosion and other environmental concerns.

Lucas filed suit and his case eventually went to the Supreme Court. He argued that the state should pay him just compensation for depriving him of all economic use of his land. South Carolina countered that the ban on construction was designed to prevent public harm due to frequent flooding, and Lucas was owed nothing. Lucas asked the Supreme Court to rule that, since the South Carolina government had taken his land, he should be compensated for it.

Lucas v. South Carolina Coastal Council (1992) illustrates the concept of a “regulatory taking,” and the principles the Supreme Court applies in such cases. The government had plausible and legitimate reasons for regulating coastlines, which are necessarily a limited and valuable resource in this country. At the same time, the government regulation had potentially severe effects on the rights and expectations of the citizens who owned and purchased private properties along ocean coastlines.

Key Question

How much should government be able to regulate property before it becomes a “taking” requiring just compensation?


Read the Case Background and Key Question. Then analyze the Documents provided. Finally, answer the Key Question in a well-organized essay that incorporates your interpretations of the Documents as well as your own knowledge of history.

Learning Objectives

  • Students trace the historical background of government power to regulate private property for public use.
  • Students analyze modern examples of government regulation and/or taking of private property for public use.


  1. As a warm-up activity, have students brainstorm a list of reasons that government might regulate the use of private property. Responses might include:
    • Flood control
    • Zoning to separate business from residential property
    • Homeowners Association regulations to maintain property values in a neighborhood
    • Restrictions on handling and disposal of hazardous materials
    • Ordinances to prevent loud music or other disruptive activities
    • Discuss the principle that no one has a right to use private property in ways that threaten the rights of others. (e.g.: indiscriminate burning, unsightly trash piles, loud music, illegal businesses, etc.)
  2. Assign appropriate documents for student analysis.
  3. Have students complete the handout Graphing Property Rights—Lucas DBQ.
  4. Use Key Question, “How much should government be able to regulate property before it becomes a ‘taking’ requiring just compensation?” for class discussion or writing assignment, focusing on the constitutional principles involved in the cases.
  5. Discuss
    • Compare the Court’s decisions in the cases addressed to your responses in Activity 1 above.
    • To what extent do you think the Supreme Court majority in each case correctly interpreted the constitutional principles involved?
    • What are the main arguments addressed in the dissenting opinion(s)?

See RESOURCES for additional Graphic Organizers.


  1. Magna Carta Excerpts (1215)
  2. Federal Farmer, December 25, 1787
  3. The Fifth Amendment (1791)
  4. Pennsylvania Coal v. Mahon (1922), Majority Opinion
  5. U.S. v. Causby (1946), Majority Opinion
  6. Penn Central Transp. Co. v. New York (1978), Majority Opinion
  7. Penn Central Transp. Co. v. New York (1978), Dissenting Opinion
  8. Beachfront Management Act, South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control Summary (1988)
  9. Lucas v. So. Carolina Coastal Council (1992), Majority Opinion
  10. Lucas v. So. Carolina Coastal Council (1992), Dissenting Opinion
  11. Lucas’s Property (1994)
  12. The Site of Lucas’s Former Property (2000)

Background Information

Document D: Pennsylvania Coal v. Mahon (1922), Majority Opinion (8-1)
In 1878, Pennsylvania Coal Company sold to H.J. Mahon the surface rights to some property, but retained the mineral rights. Mahon waived any claim for damages that might occur related to the mining of the underground coal. In 1921 Pennsylvania enacted the Kohler Act, which prohibited the mining of anthracite coal found under houses or various public buildings, in order to prevent the danger of subsidence. (Subsidence is sinking or settling of the earth’s surface, and can lead to foundation problems in any structures nearby.) When Pennsylvania Coal Company informed Mahon that it intended to mine the coal under his house, he sued the company to prevent the mining, basing his claim on the Kohler Act. The coal company maintained that since it retained mineral rights in the contract with Mahon, the Kohler Act deprived Pennsylvania Coal Company of property without compensation. The state of Pennsylvania took the position that the Kohler Act was a legitimate exercise of the police power to protect the welfare, health, and safety of the people. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes delivered the opinion of the Court.

Document E: U.S. v. Causby (1946), Majority Opinion (5-2)
Thomas Causby owned a home and chicken farm near an airport outside of Greensboro, North Carolina. During World War II, the U.S. Government leased the airport beginning on June 1, 1942. The flight path of the military aircraft was only 83 feet directly above Causby’s farm, and the increased air traffic destroyed the use of the property as a chicken farm. The airplane noise, along with the glare of the aircraft lights, brought production to a stop, because the frightened chickens flew into walls. At least 150 were killed.

Under common law, the owner of land also owned the space below and above the earth. Causby maintained that, by flying through his airspace, the U.S. Government had taken an easement (a certain right to use property owned by others) on his property and owed him just compensation. Justice William O. Douglas delivered the opinion of the Court.

Document G: Penn Central Transp. Co. v. New York (1978), Majority Opinion (6-3)
Under its Landmarks Preservation Law of 1965, New York City had designated certain neighborhoods and structures, including Grand Central Terminal, as “landmarks” of historical significance. Penn Central, which owned the terminal, planned to build a 55-story office building above it, in order to enhance the revenue they could derive from the property. However, the Landmarks Preservation Commission, made up of architects, historians, and city planners, denied Penn Central’s proposal, maintaining that the new construction would destroy the terminal’s historic and aesthetic features. The Commission stated: “[We have] no fixed rule against making additions to designated buildings — it all depends on how they are done. … But to balance a 55-story office tower above a flamboyant Beaux-Arts facade seems nothing more than an aesthetic joke. Quite simply, the tower would overwhelm the Terminal by its sheer mass. The “addition” would be four times as high as the existing structure, and would reduce the Landmark itself to the status of a curiosity…”

Penn Central claimed that application of the Landmarks Law resulted in a “taking” under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments, depriving them of their property without due process. Justice William Brennan wrote the opinion of the Court.

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