Supreme Court ruling on beaches opens door to taking claims

The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday ruled in Florida’s favor in a challenge to the state law that establishes restored beaches as public property.

But while ruling in favor of the state, a four-member minority of justices also may have created an avenue for future claims by property owners against courts in environmental cases, according to Florida legal experts.

Florida law requires at least $30 million in documentary stamp tax revenue to be spent each year on sand replacement projects, though the Legislature appropriated only $15.5 million in its cash-strapped 2010-11 state budget.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection says beach restoration projects protect private property and help attract 27 million visitors annually to the state’s beaches. The Florida Shore and Beach Preservation Association also welcomed the ruling.

But a group of property owners in Destin sued and lost in a state court challenge to Florida’s Beach and Shore Preservation Act of 1961. They’re unhappy that their property line no longer extends to the water’s edge once new sand has been placed on the beach. They said the state law violated the U.S. Constitution prohibition against government taking private property. But the court ruled by an 8-0 margin that the state law was legal. Justice John Paul Stevens, who owns beachfront property in Florida, did not participate.

DEP Secretary Michael Sole said the ruling “achieves a reasonable balance between public and private interests in the shore.” A four-member minority opinion states that even if a court rules that a law or regulation is legal, a property owner may be due compensation for a judicial taking, said Michael Allan Wolf, a University of Florida professor who specializes in land use and environmental law. Donna Christie, a Florida State University law professor agreed, saying that Justice Antonin Scalia sought to establish a new definition of such a land-use taking with very little explanation as to how it would be applied. “It is very frightening,” she said.

Attorneys for Stop Beach Renourishment Inc., the group of property owners who challenged the state law, said the ruling was disappointing but said the minority opinion was encouraging.

(Story provided by The Florida Tribune. Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission, which can be obtained by contacting