Supreme Court rules against homeowners in Florida beach dispute

The Supreme Court ruled against a group of waterfront property owners who said the state of Florida owed them money because it pumped sand onto beaches eroded by storms, lowering property values.

Melissa Nelson/AP/File
A notice is posted on the beach at Gulf Islands National Seashore, Fla., in this 2009 file photo. The Supreme Court on Thursday ruled against a group of Florida beachfront property owners who wanted compensation from the state because of a "beach renourishment" project.

A group of beachfront land owners on the Florida panhandle have lost their bid to receive government compensation in the wake of a state beach erosion control program that converted their land from waterfront property into waterview property.

In an 8 to 0 decision released Thursday, the US Supreme Court rejected the land owners’ claim that the Florida Supreme Court had engaged in what is called a “judicial taking” of private property when it upheld a state-authorized “beach renourishment” plan.

The property owners insisted that the State of Florida was obligated to pay them fair compensation for the lost value of their land.

Justice Antonin Scalia’s majority opinion is sympathetic to the property owners, but he ultimately concludes that under existing Florida law the property owners must lose.

“The takings clause [of the Fifth Amendment] only protects property rights as they are established under state law, not as they might have been established or ought to have been established,” he wrote.

In addition to ruling against the property owners, Scalia and three other justices – Chief Justice John Roberts, Justice Clarence Thomas, and Justice Samuel Alito – formed a plurality recognizing for the first time the potential that a state court could rule in a way that would require payment of fair compensation from a state government.

The four justices announced their position after deciding with the other four justices participating in the case that the Florida Supreme Court had not engaged in such a judicial taking.

Justice John Paul Stevens did not participate in the case.

The case, Stop the Beach Renourishment v. Florida Department of Environmental Protection, arose in 2003 when Florida officials proposed pumping new sand onto 6.9 miles of beach near the City of Destin and in Walton County, in Florida’s Panhandle region.

State officials said the beach had been severely eroded by a string of hurricanes and tropical storms. But not all land owners agreed that the "beach renourishment" plan was warranted.

Amid the dispute, Florida officials invoked a state law, the Beach and Shore Preservation Act. The law allows the state, under certain circumstances, to change the boundary between submerged public lands and private waterfront property.

Once the new line is established, all new sand pumped onto the beach on the seaward side comprises state-owned land under 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.

At issue in the case was whether the property owners were owed compensation under the takings clause of the Fifth Amendment.

The takings clause is generally directed at forcing the executive branch or an executive agency to pay fair compensation when private property is taken for public use. In the Florida case, the question was whether a state court decision could trigger a fair compensation payment.

The case presented a clash between littoral rights of private property owners and the rights of the State of Florida to fill its own submerged lands.

Littoral rights are the rights enjoyed by property owners fronting a lake, bay, or sea. Most submerged lands are owned by the state. So what happens when the state decides to fill its submerged land in a "beach renourishment" project that diminishes the littoral rights of adjacent property owners?

The Supreme Court studied Florida law and concluded that in such a contest the state wins.

"There is no taking unless petitioner can show that, before the Florida Supreme Court’s decision, littoral-property owners had rights… superior to the state’s right to fill in its submerged land,” Scalia wrote. “Though some may think the question close, in our view the showing cannot be made.”

Doug Kendall, president of the Constitutional Accountability Center, praised the high court decision for preserving the ability of state and local governments to respond to changing beach conditions.

"As the oil spill now ravaging our nation’s coastlines vividly demonstrates, it is crucially important that the government have the authority to step in to protect our beaches and coastal communities,” he said.

[Editor's note: The original headline mischaracterized the decision.]


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