When the government widens a beach in front of private property, it dumps publicly owned sand, which makes that new strip of beach the property of everyone.
Six beachfront homeowners in Destin had a problem with that. They argued the new sand in front of their homes stripped them of their exclusive beach access, and they wanted compensation. They sued the state of Florida in a case that ended up in the U.S. Supreme Court.
On Thursday, a unanimous court ruled against them.
The 8-0 decision greatly relieved advocates of beach renourishment. Pinellas environmental management chief Will Davis said reimbursing owners would have been so costly it would have killed the program. Business and government leaders said its demise could have affected property values, insurance rates and Florida's $65 billion tourism industry.
"This lawsuit could have put a lot of it in jeopardy," said Sen. Dennis Jones, R-Seminole, who applauded the decision.
The court's ruling cited two key principles: The state, which ordinarily owns submerged land from the water line seaward, has a right to fill it out. And if the government adds sand to its own land, extending the beach into the water, it continues to own the extended land.
In other words, beach renourishment trumps the right of homeowners to have their property line touch the water.
The Florida Supreme Court said as much when it ruled that the homeowners didn't own the property supposedly taken. It said the new sand along nearly seven miles of storm-battered beach that stretches through the city of Destin and neighboring Walton County was public property.
The homeowners said the Florida court's ruling "suddenly and dramatically changed" state law on beach property and appealed. They were not happy with Thursday's result.
"Certainly, we're disappointed with the U.S. Supreme Court's finding that the Florida Supreme Court did not change or redefine property law," said D. Kent Safriet, the attorney for the homeowners.
Court-watchers said the decision will help shape a long-running battle. On one side are those who want to expand the government's responsibility for compensating property owners who are adversely affected by government actions. On the other are those who believe that doing so would adversely impact the government's ability to do things like protecting the environment.
Property-rights advocates, including many conservatives, were eager to use the Florida case as a precedent for compensating property owners hurt by a kind of "taking" that had not been eligible for compensation before — one prompted by judicial action, rather than actions by the legislative or the executive branch.
Associate Justice Antonin Scalia, who wrote the ruling, said that in a takings case, "the particular state actor is irrelevant. If a legislature or a court declares that what was once an established right of private property no longer exists, it has taken that property, no less than if the state had physically appropriated it or destroyed its value by regulation."
But Scalia was unable to persuade a majority of the court to go that far. Three other justices — conservatives John Roberts, Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas — joined Scalia on that point, while the rest of the justices joined in a web of concurring opinions that agreed on the final ruling but not every argument. Retiring Justice John Paul Stevens sat out the case, presumably because he owns beach property in Florida and as a result could have faced a conflict of interest.
"We are extremely pleased with today's order," Florida Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Michael W. Sole said in a statement. "Beach nourishment provides a significant level of storm protection benefits for upland properties and infrastructure, restores the recreational beach and achieves a reasonable balance of public and private interest in the shore."
Indian Shores Mayor Jim Lawrence had been awaiting the court's decision with much interest. Substantial erosion on his beach means it requires renourishment every five or six years.
After he got an e-mail about the decision, he forwarded it to mayors and other leaders along the Pinellas coast.
"Hey," he said, "this is a big day for beaches."
Times staff writers David DeCamp and Sheila Estrada contributed to this report, which used information from the Associated Press. Alexandra Zayas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3354.