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For 40 years, He has been wandering in the regulatory wilderness, repeatedly denied permission to do any kind of development on 18 acres of salt marsh that he owns in Westerly, R.I. Now 80, he is appealing to the Court, which on February will hear his argument that his property has been seized in everything but name and that, under the Fifth Amendment, he is owed reimbursement.

Why is this the most important property-rights case to reach the high court in years? Because if the justices rule for him, it will send a message to regulators across the country that, no matter how well-intentioned their environmental goal, they can’t simply put a freeze on the use of private property without giving the owners a fair shake – which means fair reimbursement.

He is the most important property-rights case to reach Court in at least a decade. Brought by a man who for 40 years has been barred from developing his property because regulators want to preserve its salt marsh, the case goes to the heart of the Fifth Amendment rule that government must pay when it “takes” private property for a public purpose.

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If the court declares that he must be compensated, the case could have an incalculable impact nationwide. It will call into question all varieties of environmental regulations that deny people the use of their land without reimbursing them for the hardship.