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.
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They took the issue to court. A Florida appeals court agreed with the property owners, ruling that the state had taken their property rights and reduced the value of their land without paying fair compensation.Skip to next paragraph
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On appeal, the Florida Supreme Court reversed. The court ruled 5-2 that since the state has an obligation to maintain Florida beaches "in trust for all the people," the designation of the ECL did not affect a taking of private property.
Beachfront property owners had no "vested right" to seaward accretions, the court ruled. The tradition that such accretions belonged to the upland owner was merely a "rule of convenience," and would not apply in the context of a state-run beach restoration project seeking to repair erosion from hurricanes, the Florida Supreme Court said.
The majority justices reasoned that the property owners still had an unobstructed view of the sea and unimpeded access to it. Besides, the new state-owned beach provided a buffer for adjacent private property against future storms.
"Over the years, about 198 miles of Florida's 825 miles of beaches have been restored under the [beach restoration act]," writes Florida Solicitor General Scott Makar in his brief to the court. "None of these [upland] property owners have claimed entitlement to money or title to the state-owned portions of restored beaches – until now."
State law precedents protect a property owner's access to the water but not direct contact with the sea, Mr. Makar said.
A states issue?
However, lawyers for the Stop the Beach Renourishment, Inc (STBR) land owners argue in their brief that physical contact with water is an essential feature of littoral rights.
"The Florida Supreme Court interpreted the [beach restoration law] to change the legal descriptions in the STBR's members' deeds converting waterfront property into water-view," writes Tallahassee lawyer D. Kent Safriet in his brief to the court. "The state now holds what STBR members once held: oceanfront property with all the attendant littoral property rights."
Mr. Safriet says the Florida high court's ruling brought about a "sudden and dramatic change of 100 years of state property law." He says it amounts to a judicial taking of property and that such a taking is unconstitutional unless the government pays fair compensation.
"This is not a case where a landowner's property is about to collapse into the ocean. If it were, landowners would likely waive any right to compensation in exchange for beach restoration," Safriet says.
Thomas Merrill, who represents Walton County and the City of Destin, warns the Supreme Court to avoid becoming entangled in a state law dispute. It should be left to the Florida courts to determine the substance of Florida property law, he says in his brief.
The US Supreme Court has never recognized a judicial taking claim, he says, adding that the Florida case does not support such a claim.
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