A Lackawanna County, Pa., woman who’s been fighting over access rights to her farm took the fight to the U.S. Supreme Court and won on Friday.
Rose Mary Knick, 70, owns 90 acres of rolling farmland and woods in rural Scott Township. Her trouble began in 2008 when a man conducting genealogy research believed ancestors were buried on her property. That man went on Knick’s land to scout around, and concluded that a small area of irregularly patterned fieldstones could be headstones. He told The Inquirer all he wanted to do was "walk into the cemetery, clean it up a little, and plant a flag.”
In 2012, Scott Township supervisors passed an ordinance that in essence granted public access to private cemeteries during daylight hours; landowners could be fined $300 to $600 per day if they didn’t comply.
“It’s not even about the cemetery anymore,” Knick said on her property in 2018. “It’s about the Constitution.”
On Friday, the Supreme Court ruled, 5-4, in favor of Knick, essentially giving all citizens another way to pursue a lawsuit against state or local governments over property rights issues. Instead of filing lawsuits in state and local courts first, citizens with property grievances now can go directly to federal court.
“This decision is a very long time coming for Rose and other property owners who have had federal courtroom doors slammed shut in their faces whenever they seek compensation for a governmental taking of their private property," attorney Dave Breemer of the Pacific Legal Foundation said in a statement Friday.
Knick first sued Scott Township in Lackawanna County Court in 2013, claiming her property rights were violated. That court refused to rule on Knick’s case, according to her legal team, so she filed in U.S. District Court. In 2015, the federal court granted the township’s motion to dismiss Knick’s case, citing a 1985 Supreme Court decision known as Williamson County Planning, which required plaintiffs to first file suit in state court, which Knick had already done.
The U.S. Supreme Court took on the case in March 2018. At the time, Scott Township’s attorney told The Inquirer the court’s decision “will have a wide effect on property law in this country.”
That year, Knick said she had no plans for the property other than to enjoy its peace and quiet.