Paradise Lost: Lawful Beach Upgrade or State Land Grab?

U.S. Supreme Court hears arguments in Florida property rights case.

November 30, 2009, 9:54 AM

Dec. 2, 2009— -- Nestled along the pristine white beaches of the Florida Panhandle town of Destin is the home of Nancy and Slade Lindsay, who said that when they bought their property 12 years ago, they fulfilled a lifelong dream to own a private beach.

But now the Lindsays say the state of Florida has dashed that dream by illegally taking their beachfront property and allowing the public to use it without any proper compensation.

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

The controversy arose when Walton County officials -- citing dangerous beach erosion -- stepped in to renourish beaches along a 6.9 mile stretch using taxpayer money. Florida's Beach and Shore Preservation Act authorizes publicly funded beach restoration projects to protect critically eroded beaches.

The multimillion dollar project added new sand, reshaped dunes and in some areas substantially increased the size of the beach. But the improvements, according to Florida law, also made that "new" strip of beach behind the Lindsay's home public property.

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

The homeowners then decided to take 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 Supreme Court will hear arguments in the case.

In court briefs, lawyers for the homeowners wrote "the Florida Supreme Court suddenly and dramatically changed 100 years of state property law to achieve its desired outcome."

Lawyers for the state of Florida argue that the case should not be before the Supreme Court at all, that it is a matter better left to state courts.

"This case involves a state court deciding an issue of state law that raises no issue of state, regional or national importance that justifies this court's review."

High Court Weighs State Interests and Individual Property Rights

Brad Pickel, president of Sea Haven Consulting, who oversaw the beach renourishment program for the county, said Florida was well within its right to improve the beaches.

He said the state did not take away the homeowners' property, it merely created more property between the homeowners land and the ocean. "What you are doing is putting sand in state waters, so it is state property to begin with and state property when the project is over with," Pickel said.

But the landowners accuse the state of disguising its desire to open the beaches to more tourists by citing land erosion.

"The beach itself just does its natural thing" said Janet Frost, whose father bought their beach ront property in 1946. She claims the beach would have renourished itself naturally, and the city did not need to step in. "It's just a living breathing beach. It comes and goes with the storms. And the seasons without storms it builds up again."

Others said that the need to protect the beaches from erosion is linked to the economy of the state. "If we don't have wide pristine and white beaches, people are not going to come. They are going to go someplace else," said Sonny Mares, the executive director of Walton County Tourist Development Council . "You have got to have access to the beach. It is our economic engine. It is extremely important."

Twenty-six states have signed on to briefs supporting Florida.

Still, Slade Lindsay and his wife insist that their constitutional rights have been violated.

"My wife and I had always had the dream to own beachfront property," said Lindsay. "And now the state has taken it away."

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