Supreme Court rejects Florida beach owners’ claim


The Supreme Court rejected a property rights claim from some disgruntled owners of beachfront in Florida on Thursday, upholding instead the state’s authority to pump new sand onto an eroded shoreline without paying compensation.

This extra sand became a new strip of public beach. That in turn prompted a group of property owners along Florida’s east coast to sue, contending that the state had taken away their rights to a private beach. What was once oceanfront property had become ocean-view property, they said, demanding compensation for their loss.

Florida beach ruling: An article in Friday’s Section A about a Supreme Court ruling against a property rights claim by some owners of Florida beachfront said they lived on the state’s east coast. They live on the northwest coast near Destin, Fla. —

In something of surprise, all the justices, with one abstention, ruled for the state, concluding that under Florida law, the state owns the sand it has added to the beaches.

In December, when the case came before the court, several of its conservatives said they were inclined to protect the private property rights of the owners in Stop the Beach Renourishment Inc. vs. Florida Department of Environmental Protection. In the end, however, they decided that the state law trumped these claims.

The ruling was a victory for environmentalists and state officials, and a disappointment for those who believed the Roberts court would move quickly to strengthen property rights. But because the ruling turned on how Florida law treats beach property, it is not certain it will have a direct effect on other states.

If it does, however, it could discourage property rights claims from being filed in Gulf Coast states in response to the oil spill offshore. State and federal officials in Louisiana and nearby states have moved to create sand berms along the coast to protect marshlands from oil. The court’s decision says newly created sand dunes become the public’s land, and their presence does not take away the rights of a beachfront property owner.

Doug Kendall, president of the liberal Constitutional Accountability Center in Washington, said the ruling supported the government’s effort in the gulf region. By supporting “Florida’s efforts to restore eroded beaches, [the ruling] preserves the ability of state and local governments to respond to changing environmental conditions,” Kendall said. The oil spill shows that “it is crucially important that the government have the authority to step in and to protect our beaches and coastal communities,” he added.

The Pacific Legal Foundation in California has long advocated for stronger property rights for coastal owners. “We are disappointed that the Supreme Court did not vindicate the rights of the Florida property owners,” said James Burling, a lawyer for the group. He took comfort from one part of the opinion, however.

Led by Justice Antonin Scalia, four justices said that the Constitution’s protection for private property forbids state judges, like other public officials, from taking property without compensation.

Justice John Paul Stevens sat out the case because he owns a condominium on a Florida beach that could have been affected by the ruling.