Supreme Court case: Florida v. beach property owners
Beach property owners in Florida went to court after the state government added sand to the beach in front of their homes, citing erosion, and designated the new stretch public land. The Supreme Court hears arguments Wednesday.
A group of beachfront property owners in Florida are set to argue on Wednesday at the US Supreme Court that Florida's highest court stripped them of their property rights and undercut the value of their land without paying any compensation.Skip to next paragraph
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The case marks the Supreme Court's first foray into the area of property rights since the justices handed down their controversial 2005 decision allowing the demolition of a New London, Conn., residential neighborhood to make way for a private development project.
The Florida case involves a dispute over whether Florida's Supreme Court violated the US Constitution when it ruled that the state did not have to pay compensation to beachfront landowners adjacent to a beach restoration project.
At issue in Stop the Beach Renourishment, Inc. v. Florida Department of Environmental Protection, is the scope and enforceability of littoral rights. Littoral rights are the rights enjoyed by the owner of private property fronting a lake, bay, or sea.
Traditionally, littoral rights in Florida included the right to own land up to the edge of the rising tide. This boundary is the place where the high tide meets dry sand. Lawyers and land surveyors call it the mean high water line (MHWL).
The problem with beachfront property is that beaches are constantly either eroding or accreting. As a result, the MHWL is always moving landward or seaward. That means beachfront land is always either shrinking or expanding.
Littoral rights include a risk that erosion might diminish waterfront property. But they also include a potential benefit – that any accretion would accrue to the owner.
Beach restoration project
The current case arose in 2003 when Florida officials proposed a beach nourishment program to pump new sand onto 6.9-miles of beach in and near the city of Destin in Florida's Panhandle region. State officials said the beach had been hit hard by a string of hurricanes and tropical storms.
Landowners disagreed. They said the beach had not eroded to critical levels.
Amid the dispute, Florida officials invoked the state Beach and Shore Preservation Act, which allows state officials under certain circumstances to change the boundary between submerged public lands and private waterfront property. Instead of using the MHWL as the property line, the state established a new boundary called the Erosion Control Line (ECL). Unlike the transitory MHWL, this is a fixed boundary based on beach measurements made immediately prior to pumping tons of new sand onto the beach.
Once the ECL is established, all sand pumped on the seaward side of the line comprises state-owned land under the Florida law. In the process, beachfront landowners lose their right to claim any accreted land seaward and their property is no longer in direct contact with the sea.
Complaints of demoting property
Lawyers for the landowners argue that by setting the new fixed boundary the state effectively demoted their clients' waterfront property into mere waterview property.