Supreme Court takes up property-rights case

The high court announced Monday it would hear a case involving a Florida beach restoration project.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The US Supreme Court has agreed to take up a case examining whether the Florida Supreme Court violated the private property rights of waterfront landowners in a seven-mile-long beach restoration project.

The beach has been eroded by a series of hurricanes and tropical storms.

At issue in the case is whether the state high court violated the US Constitution's takings clause when it upheld a Florida government plan to create a state-owned public beach, 60 feet to 120 feet wide, between private waterfront land and the Gulf of Mexico near Destin, Fla.

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In effect, the beach renourishment plan would convert privately owned waterfront property into waterview property without any compensation paid to the landowner, according to lawyers for the owners.

"This case is the ideal vehicle for [the US Supreme Court] to finally rein in activist state courts that continue to invoke non-existent rules of state substantive law to avoid takings claims by declaring no property rights ever existed," writes D. Kent Safriet, a Tallahassee lawyer in his brief on behalf of Stop the Beach Renourishment Inc., a property-owner group.

The high court announced its decision to hear the case in an order issued on Monday. Stop the Beach Renourishment v. Florida will be argued during the high court's next term, which begins in October.

Florida's 40-year-old Beach and Shore Preservation Act establishes a procedure for the state to restore eroded shorelines.

The seaward boundary of beachfront private property extends to the mean high water line (MHWL), a boundary that shifts over time with the size of the beach. In contrast, the Shore Preservation Act replaces the MHWL with a fixed erosion control line (ECL).

Prior to the beach nourishment project, the owner of the waterfront land enjoyed potential rights to any additional land from accretions – should the beach grow seaward. But once the state sets the ECL, that right no longer exists, the landowners complain.

State lawyers countered that upland owners continue to enjoy every preexisting waterfront property right "except the potential expansion of her property via accretions that hypothetically might form while the ECL is in place."

In upholding the state law against the landowners, the Florida Supreme Court said the state has a constitutional duty to protect Florida's beaches as a vital economic and natural resource. "As for the upland land owners, the beach renourishment protects their property from future storm damage and erosion while preserving their littoral rights to access, use, and view," the state high court declared.

The Florida justices added that the law achieved a "reasonable balance of interests and rights to uniquely valuable and volatile property interests."

Property owners disagree. They say a portion of their property interests were taken by the state without any compensation. "The Florida Supreme Court's opinion is a product of judicial engineering to achieve a desired policy result," Mr. Safriet writes in his brief.

State officials have suggested that if Florida were required to pay compensation to landowners, the resulting financial burden might "cripple the state's beach renourishment program," the lawyer says.

The Florida justices, Safriet says, ignored 100 years of state property law to issue their decision.

A lawyer for Walton County and the City of Destin disagreed. "The Florida Supreme Court has simply continued the development of its own common law – a process which is not stagnant but fluctuates – in light of real property developments related to beach renourishment projects," writes Tampa lawyer Hala Sandridge, in her brief to the court.

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