It may be tied up in fancy constitutional arguments, but a Florida case before the U.S. Supreme Court today boils down to whether beachfront property owners can keep the public off a sandy strip of paradise.
The high court is being asked to find that beachfront property owners have the right to have their property line touch the water, even if taxpayers pay for added beach to protect the shoreline from erosion. If the court agrees, the ruling would significantly hamper Florida's ability to maintain its beaches and protect its shoreline.
Florida's white, sandy beaches serve many public purposes, including luring tourists and protecting property owners from destructive hurricane surges. Over the years, the government has spent millions adding sand to eroding beaches to protect these interests. But the case out of Destin challenges the state's ability to continue doing so. Six property owners along the Gulf of Mexico are claiming that the 40-year-old state law that fixes their property line instead of letting it fluctuate at the water's edge is an unconstitutional taking of their property.
Under traditional common law, the line between private property and publicly owned waterfront land was the mean high water line. Everything seaward was public while all upland property was private. The boundary line moved as a beach naturally eroded or expanded. But Florida law recognized that when the state embarked on a renourishment project — adding tons of new sand to an eroding beach — the new beach was a public asset. The law fixed the private property line at the erosion control line, usually the prior mean high water line.
The restoration project in Destin was completed in 2007, significantly expanding the public area of the beach and outraging beachfront property owners. In Stop the Beach Renourishment Inc. vs. Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the landowners say the state has to compensate them for the difference in value between waterfront and waterview property.
In a 5-2 ruling, the Florida Supreme Court rightly found no merit in the homeowners' claim. The majority said that the state has a constitutional duty to protect its beaches and its renourishment program and it does so without unduly interfering with the rights of beachfront property owners. These owners may still enjoy an unobstructed view of the water and full access and use of the beach. The only interest they give up is the extra property garnered if the beach naturally expands. Of course, with a fixed property line, the owners also benefit by not losing beach themselves to erosion.
If the U.S. Supreme Court sets aside the ruling by the Florida Supreme Court it will be an activist step, reaching deeply into the Florida court's interpretation of state law and the state Constitution. There was nothing radical about the state court's ruling. It adjusted a rather speculative private property interest in order to secure the broader public interest in beach renourishment that protects the tourism economy and public infrastructure. The Florida court decision should be allowed to stand.