High Court Weighs Florida Beach Case
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When does a private beach become public? That's a central question in a complicated case heard today in the Supreme Court. It's a property rights dispute from Florida.
The case tests whether a state court decision, based on state law, can amount to an unconstitutional taking of property. The federal Constitution bars the taking of private property without just compensation.
NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg explains.
NINA TOTENBERG: For four decades, Florida has poured millions of dollars into restoring beaches eroded by hurricanes and other storms. With 820 miles of sandy beach on its coast, the state and local governments have seen these programs as essential to preserving private property, coastal roads, utilities and tourism.
At issue in this case is what land is private, and what's public, at the water's edge. With the state spending large amounts to preserve the beach, Florida sets the property line for private beachfront property where it is when a restoration project begins: at the wet, sandy beach. And if because of the restoration the dry beach extends further out towards the water, that's considered public property.
While these projects have generally been popular, some beachfront homeowners in the panhandle town of Destin have a different view.
Mr. SLADE LINDSAY (Plaintiff): It was simply a land grab.
TOTENBERG: Slade Lindsey is among a handful of homeowners who went to court, claiming that the state was unconstitutionally taking their land by creating a strip of new public beach in front of their homes. They lost in the Florida Supreme Court. That court noted that under state law, the landowners have the right to the same unobstructed view, the same access to the water and by law, that they're guaranteed the peaceful enjoyment of their property. The court said that Florida common law has never provided the landowner a right to own emerging land as private property.
Today in the U.S. Supreme Court, lawyer Kent Safriet urged the justices to reverse that ruling and, for the first time, declare private property can be unconstitutionally taken by a decision of the state judiciary.
Justice Breyer: You didn't lose one inch that you had before, and you have complete access to the water. Chief Justice Roberts: If somebody wanted to put a hot dog stand on the new strip of public beach, would you have the right to tell them they can't? Answer: Absolutely not. Justice Breyer: I thought there's a provision in the law that says they cannot put anything on that strip which destroys your right of enjoyment of your property.
Justice Scalia observed that the state's erosion-control project is something of a quid pro quo. In exchange for protecting the landowner's property from further erosion, the public may put down blankets and sunbathe on the new strip of beach. Didn't any of these landowners think this was a good deal? he wondered. After all, they're guaranteed against further loss of property.
Defending the beach restoration project, Florida Solicitor General Scott Makar told the justices that here, all the state did was to create a dry, sandy beach buffer on top of submerged land that had always been owned by the state.
Justice Scalia: I think beachfront owners in every state would be astounded to learn that they only have the right to access the water, and not the right to have their property abut the water. Justice Alito: Suppose a city, to attract more students at spring break, decided to create a huge beach in front of privately owned homes and have televised beach parties. Doesn't that, as a practical matter, have a real effect on the value of the property?
When lawyer Makar couldn't seem to articulate an answer, Justice Breyer interjected, noting that under state law, nobody can put anything on that strip which is injurious to the upland owner.
Justice Kennedy: Do you think that there could be a time when the creation of a strip of public beach would be a substantial impairment of the upland owner's rights?
Answer: The Florida Supreme Court was very careful to say that if such a case were to actually occur, the landowners could pursue a claim in court.
Today's debate was not an academic exercise to at least two of the justices. Chief Justice John Roberts owns land on the water in Maine, and Justice John Paul Stevens actually recused himself from today's case, apparently because he owns land on the Florida coast.
The U.S. Supreme Court has never before declared a state court judgment, based on state law, to be an unconstitutional taking of private property for public use, and Justice Anthony Kennedy today focused on the difficulty of doing that. The problem, he observed in this case, is that we would have to become real experts in Florida law. That's something the court clearly is not. For much of today's argument, the justices were mired in the weeds of disputed points of Florida law.
Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.