TAKEN: California man fights county’s $23,000 fee to build on his own land
A California county told a construction worker he’d have to pay $23,000 to obtain a building permit for a new house, so he sued. Now the Supreme Court will rule on the case.
George Sheetz spent 50 years in construction, saving his money. He bought a vacant lot not far from Lake Tahoe and planned to build a house there for his retirement.
But when Sheetz went to get a building permit, he was issued an unexpected “traffic impact mitigation” fee for over $23,000. The county legislature created the fee a few years earlier to help pay for roadwork.
“That’s when I started getting pissed off,” Sheetz told Fox News. “I said, ‘this is ridiculous.’”
Sheetz has built several homes throughout his life, so he was familiar with the typical administrative processes and costs.
TAKEN: California man fights county’s $23,000 fee to build on his own land
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“‘Well, you don’t have to build here,’” he recalled a county official saying after he complained. “‘Go someplace else.’”
Sheetz had already put a down payment on a manufactured home, so in 2016, he paid the fee. But soon after, he sued the county, arguing that the fee amount wasn’t proportionate to the actual impact his project would cause on the roads.
“Mr. Sheetz thought that this was outrageous, that his small, 1,800-square-foot manufactured home wouldn’t cause anything like those kinds of traffic impacts,” Sheetz’s attorney, Paul Beard, told Fox News. “What the county did to Mr. Sheetz was fundamentally unfair. The county asked Mr. Sheetz to pay for pre-existing deficiencies on a highway and local roads as the condition of issuing him a permit.”
“They asked him to pay for traffic impacts caused by other uses and developments like retail development and office development,” Beard continued. “Why should he have had to pay for those pre-existing deficiencies and for those impacts caused by other uses?”
George Sheetz stands in front of his California home. Sheetz sued El Dorado County after the government made him pay a $23,000 “traffic impact mitigation” fee for a building permit. (Courtesy: Pacific Legal Foundation)
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After a seven-year legal battle that included two rulings against him, Beard argued Sheetz’s case before the Supreme Court earlier this month with attorneys from the Pacific Legal Foundation, a libertarian public interest law firm, serving as co-counsel.
“I never dreamed we’d ever get to [the Supreme Court], to be honest with you,” Sheetz said. “I just wanted to fight the fight because I knew what they were doing was wrong.”
El Dorado County, however, argued that its fee was needed to pay for road maintenance and is similar to other local governments’ fees that fund parks, police departments and other services. Beard said the government has every right to collect revenue to bankroll such services that would benefit the public, but the way the county is doing it is illegal.
“The county didn’t bother to tie the fee over $23,000 to the actual impacts of his projects,” Beard told Fox News. “They were instead using him as a revenue raiser.”
George Sheetz stands before the Supreme Court with his legal team. The California man’s case was argued before the high court earlier in January 2024. (Courtesy: Pacific Legal Foundation)
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The county’s Deputy Chief Administrator Carla B. Hass declined an interview request for this story but provided a statement to a local ABC affiliate before the case went to the Supreme Court.
“The outcome of this case could have nationwide ramifications on how local agencies fund the cost of providing needed public infrastructure, such as roads and firefighting equipment,” Hass said earlier this month. “The county fees under attack have already been upheld by the California Superior Court and California Court of Appeal, which confirmed that the county complied with all applicable requirements for the imposition of development impact mitigation fees.”
Under the Constitution’s Takings Clause, the government is permitted to seize property, including money, though there are certain conditions that must be met. El Dorado County’s fee is unconstitutional because the amount doesn’t consider how much a project will cost the government and because only new development applicants — and not all taxpayers — are funding a service the public at large uses, Beard argued.
“The county’s fee was based not on any impacts caused by Mr. Sheetz,” said Beard, who previously worked for the Pacific Legal Foundation. “They just wanted him to contribute to prior road deficiencies related to the roads nearby the house.”
George Sheetz drives on his property located near Lake Tahoe in El Dorado County, California. He purchased it intending to build a home to retire to. (Courtesy: Pacific Legal Foundation)
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“That is unconstitutional,” he continued.
In other words, the county needed to either put the financial burden for the roads on all taxpayers or calculate the financial impact of Sheetz’s project and charge him appropriately, according to Beard.
“Instead of raising taxes on the general population, which is very unpopular,” he said, “the county instead found a way to just target a select few within the county.”
The county argued that determining the costs on a case-by-case basis would put a major burden on governments.
The lower courts, meanwhile, sided with El Dorado County since its legislative body issued the fee and not the executive branch.
In his case, Sheetz argued that the El Dorado government’s $23,000 fee didn’t consider the impact his project would actually have on county roads. (Courtesy: Pacific Legal Foundation)
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“It doesn’t matter who imposes the fee, whether it’s a bureaucrat behind the permit counter or whether it’s the legislative body, it’s all the same,” Beard said. “A taking is a taking.”
“Every American should want his or her rights protected against violations by the government, regardless of which branch of government does the violation,” he continued.
The attorney worries that if the Supreme Court rules in El Dorado’s favor, governments nationwide will be able to impose fees for land use without oversight from the courts, effectively allowing them to hold permit applicants “over a barrel.”
“What that means is that the costs of general public infrastructure projects, which should be borne by the public as a whole via taxes, will now be borne entirely by new development and new project applicants,” Beard said.
George Sheetz stands by a road by his home near Lake Tahoe. El Dorado County contends that its “traffic impact mitigation” fee is necessary to pay for roadwork. (Courtesy: Pacific Legal Foundation)
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But a win for Sheetz will force governments to prove the fees they charge for land use permits is connected and proportionate to the impacts of the projects, according to Beard.
“The average person has got to stand up, take a stand and say, ‘hey, we’re not going to put up with this crap anymore,’” said Sheetz, who told Fox News his body was “in shambles” after spending 50 years in construction. “You’re just pissing money away. You’re taking it from the working person.”
“The average, everyday working person is busting their a– to try to survive and try to figure out a way to survive and retire comfortably,” Sheetz continued. “You can’t keep taking money from the working class that are supporting this country and screwing ’em.”
The Supreme Court is set to issue a ruling by June 30.
Ethan Barton is a producer/reporter for Digital Originals. You can reach him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @ethanrbarton.