Court Limits Public Access to Private Beach

Associated Press

The Supreme Court, in a victory for land developers, today limited the power of government regulators to grant public access to private property.

At the conclusion of its 1986-87 term, the court overturned, 5 to 4, a decision by California officials that gave the public the right to walk along beachfront property between the ocean and a Ventura couple's home without compensating the home owners.

Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the court, said granting public access to private property--or any government limitation on private property development--must be tied directly to a specific, justifiable public purpose.

Today's case involved the right of James and Marilyn Nollan to bar people from crossing back and forth across their Ventura County beachfront property.

The Nollans decided in 1982 to replace a deteriorating bungalow on their Faria Beach property with a three-bedroom, two-story house.

The California Coastal Commission said in exchange for the building permit, nearly one-third of the 3,800-square-foot property had to be set aside for the public to cross back and forth.

Generally, the public owns a state's shoreline up to the part covered by mean high tide. In California and most other states, the dry portion of the beach above the high-water mark can be privately owned.

The Nollans said that if the public is to have access to their property, they should be paid.

The court today agreed with the Nollans.

"It's nice to know that in America, when you buy property, it's yours and the state can't take it unless they compensate you," Nollan said of the decision.

He said the Coastal Commission has had "a very arrogant attitude toward the property owner. . . . I suspect that with this decision, you're going to see a lot of restraint on how they deal with the property owner."

Scalia said the coastal commission did not adequately justify the public access requirement by claiming "that the public interest will be served by a continuous strip of publicly accessible beach along the coast."

He said, "The commission may well be right that it is a good idea. But that does not establish that the Nollans (and other coastal residents) alone can be compelled to contribute to its realization."

He said if the commission "wants an easement across the Nollans' property, it must pay for it."

Scalia was joined by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Byron R. White, Lewis F. Powell Jr. and Sandra Day O'Connor.

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