Supreme Court Rules Property Rights Not Violated by State's Beach Upgrades

Unanimous but narrow decision rules against Florida beach property owners.

ByAriane De Vogue
June 17, 2010, 9:10 AM

WASHINGTON, June 17, 2010— -- The Supreme Court today ruled that the state of Florida did not have to compensate several beachfront property owners when a beach renourishment project changed the owners' property lines.

The case came to the court when Walton County, Florida officials, citing dangerous beach erosion along the Gulf of Mexico, stepped in and added sand along a 6.9 mile stretch in 2003, using taxpayer money.

Florida's Beach and Shore Preservation Act authorizes publicly funded beach restoration to protect critically eroded beaches, and the county's multimillion dollar project added new sand, reshaping dunes and in some areas substantially increasing the size of the beach.

But the improvements, according to Florida law, also made that "new" strip of beach public property, infuriating residents like Nancy and Slade Lindsay, who have a home overlooking the gulf in the town of Destin. They said the action amounted to the state unlawfully taking ownership of their private beachfront property.

"They are literally taking our property," Slade Lindsay said. "Changing our deeds, changing our property boundaries, no compensation and no tax breaks."

The Lindsays and four other residents along the sandy stretch filed a lawsuit to challenge Florida's actions. The state's highest court ruled in favor of the Florida government.

The homeowners then brought their case to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that the Florida Supreme Court decision had unconstitutionally deprived them of their property.

In legalese, the homeowners said that the state court decision constituted a "judicial taking" of their property, which the U.S. Constitution prohibits.

Today, the court ruled unanimously against the property owners in the case, finding that the state had not improperly confiscated property that would lead to a judicial taking.

"The court's ruling today supports Florida's efforts to restore eroded beaches and preserves the ability of state and local governments to respond to changing environmental conditions," said Doug Kendall of the Constitutional Accountability Center. "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."

However, some of the justices left open the possibility that in other cases, with different facts, they might rule the state was guilty of a "judicial taking."

Court Rules Narrowly on Prospect of 'Judicial Taking' of Private Property

"The four conservative justices recognized that the judicial branch of government is not insulated from the protections afforded to private property owners by the U.S. Constitution," said Richard Brightman, an attorney for the homeowners.

"We are disappointed by the ruling but it leaves open the possibility of other judicial takings cases in the future," he said.

Justice John Paul Stevens took no part in the decision, possibly because he owns beachfront property in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

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