Agins v. City of Tiburon

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Agins v. City of Tiburon
Seal of the United States Supreme Court.svg
Argued April 15, 1980
Decided June 10, 1980
Full case name Donald W. Agins, et ux. v. City of Tiburon
Citations 447 U.S. 255 (more)
100 S. Ct. 2138; 65 L. Ed. 2d 106; 1980 U.S. LEXIS 132; 14 ERC (BNA) 1555; 10 ELR 20361
Prior history Appeal from the Supreme Court of California
The California Supreme Court's holding that the zoning ordinances on their face do not take the property without just compensation is upheld.
Court membership
Case opinions
Majority Powell, joined by unanimous
Laws applied
U.S. Const. amend. V
Overruled by
Lingle v. Chevron U.S.A. Inc. (2005)

Agins v. City of Tiburon, 447 U.S. 255 (1980), was a United States Supreme Court case in which the Court held that the test for determining whether a zoning ordinance or governmental regulation will be considered a taking is whether such action “substantially advances” a legitimate state interest.

This test and holding have since been abrogated by Lingle v. Chevron U.S.A. Inc., 554 U.S. 528 (2005). The Supreme Court there held that the "substantially advances" test would no longer be used to determine regulatory takings, reverting to the precedent of Penn Central Transportation Co. v. New York City (1978).


California state law required the city to prepare a general plan governing both land use and the development of open space land.

After Agins acquired 5 acres (20,000 m2) of unimproved property zoned one house per acre, the city announced that it intended to acquire it, and issued bonds to finance the taking. It filed an eminent domain action, but on the eve of trial abandoned it. Instead, it amended the zoning ordinance placing the subject land in a zone that permitted construction of one to five homes, the exact number being discretionary with the city. The owners contended that the construction of one home was economically infeasible and that the city intended to convert their land into open space by preventing its development. They sued seeking just compensation for a regulatory taking.

The owners alleged that their land had greater value than other land in California because of its spectacular views of San Francisco Bay, and the rezoning prevented economically feasible development, thereby completely destroying its value, and thus effecting a taking without just compensation in violation of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments.

In an opinion that broke with preexisting state law, the California Supreme Court refused to recognize the existence of a regulatory taking cause of action, and held that the only remedy available to the owner would be a petition for a writ of mandate seeking to invalidate the regulation on grounds of denial of substantive due process, but not just compensation. Though the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed that decision on other grounds in 1980, in 1987 it overruled the California Supreme Court's Agins decision in First English Evangelical Lutheran Church v. Los Angeles County (1987).

In its Agins opinion, the U.S. Supreme Court never reached the issue of whether an as-applied taking occurred because Agins had failed to apply for the necessary development entitlement, and therefore the court thought this issue was not ripe for judicial decision. The court held that the zoning ordinance did not on its face deny Agins all use of the land, and hence there was no facial taking. Nor did the court reach the principal question submitted to it: whether in the context of an alleged regulatory taking, as is the case in physical takings, the aggrieved owner's remedy is "just compensation" as specified in the Fifth Amendment, or only a judgment declaring the regulation in question to be invalid. Eventually, in 1987, in the First English case, the Supreme Court overruled the California Supreme Court's Agins decision.

It took Ms. Agins over 30 years of administrative proceedings and litigation before she was finally permitted to build three houses on the subject five acre property.

Court's decision[edit]

The question in this case was whether the ordinances took Agins' property without just compensation.

The complaint framed the question as whether a state court's decision to deny compensation for regulatory takings was constitutional, and whether a zoning ordinance that de facto forbade all development of their land effected a taking under the 5th and 14th Amendments. However, as noted, because the owners had not yet submitted a plan for development the court found that the issue of whether an as-applied taking occurred, was not yet ripe for decision. Therefore, the court was left only to determine whether this zoning ordinance constituted a taking on its face.

The Court held that a general zoning law can be a taking if the ordinance does not substantially advance a legitimate state interest or denies an owner economically viable use of his land. In spite of its finding of lack of ripeness, the U. S. Supreme Court affirmed the California Supreme Court's holding that the zoning ordinances did not on their face effect an uncompensated taking.


The Court thought that the ordinance in question substantially advanced legitimate governmental goals by discouraging premature and unnecessary conversion of open space land to urban uses, thus staving off the ill effects of urbanization. But the court did not address the converse of that proposition, namely, that large-lot zoning tends to promote urban sprawl.

Pointing to Euclid v. Ambler Realty (1926), that zoning laws are constitutional when they bear a substantial relationship to the public welfare, and their enactment inflicts no extensive economic harm upon the landowner, the court upheld the Tiburon ordinance. The court failed to note, however, that the Euclid case held expressly that the owner need not seek building entitlements before suing on constitutional grounds.

The court noted that the owners would share with other owners the benefits and burdens of the city’s exercise of its police power.

Further, the owners were found to still be able to pursue their reasonable investment expectations because they could still build some houses on their property.