EARLY next month the US Supreme Court is scheduled to hear a case that is as significant to coastal environmentalists as the high court's Roe v. Wade decision is to anti-abortion and pro-choice activists. Lucas v. South Carolina Coastal Council is about the right of government to protect fragile beaches and other coastal land.
Anyone who has recently visited a coastal area must be aware of the terrific pressure being put on the resource: Commercial resorts, private beach houses, and public facilities are teeming with people for much of the year.
In the pending case, developer David Lucas paid $975,000 for two beach-front lots on South Carolina's Isle of Palms in 1986. Before he began construction the state enacted a law that forbade him to build because his property was in an "inlet erosion zone." A state court ruled that, under the so-called "taking" clause of the Fifth Amendment to the US Constitution, if the state barred Lucas from using his property he should be compensated for his loss. The court set compensation at $1.2 million. But when t he South Carolina Supreme Court overruled the decision, Lucas appealed to the highest court in the land.
South Carolina officials and those who agree with their position argue that the greater public good is at issue. A lawyer for the National Audubon Society says, "The nub of the issue is whether the government can regulate property to prevent a public harm without giving rise to a compensation claim. I do not know that we can pay for every economic knock that people suffer."
State and federal governments have been generous to waterfront property owners - subsidizing flood insurance, providing disaster aid, and even building access roads (for both property owners and visitors). People insist on building on and altering the landscape; nature seems bent on thwarting them, inexorably shaping and reshaping coastlines.
Eighty-six percent of of California's coastline recedes from six inches to two feet a year; Louisiana's coastal wetlands are disappearing at a rate of 50 square miles a year.
The case potentially has broader implications than just its impact on coastal management. A ruling for Lucas could cast a shadow over many areas of government regulation that affect the value of private property.
Traditionally, zoning laws and other regulation of property - in contrast to government's actually acquiring property under eminent domain statutes - have not been thought to require compensation of private owners under the Fifth Amendment. However, Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas are believed to favor greater constitutional protection for property rights.
In resolving this perplexing problem, the Supreme Court will have to balance cherished individual rights and the welfare of the whole people.