Beach case could extend beyond Florida

By Kelly Wolfe In a case that could have implications for shorelines around the country, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in December about whether homeowners in Florida must be compensated when beach-widening projects make private beaches public. Six homeowners living on the Gulf of Mexico in Fort Walton Beach have challenged a Florida Supreme Court decision that said a private beach became public after a beach re-nourishment project. The state Supreme Court said in a 5-2 ruling that the beach is an evolving, “dynamic boundary,” that is always changing because of storms and erosion. It ruled Florida law "attempts to bring order and certainty to this dynamic boundary" by balancing public and private interests. But landowners called the state decision a de-facto taking. The owners say their deeds entitle them to all land up to the mean high water line, including the additional 80 to 100 feet of beach the state added. They said they paid a lot of money for beachfront property and they don’t want to look out and see a bunch of wet bathing suits and colorful umbrellas. The Constitution requires governments to pay compensation when they take private property for public use. Beach advocates said a ruling in favor of the landowners would undermine the state’s ability to protect natural resources. Beach renourishment happens on every shoreline in the state. Over time, about 198 miles of Florida's 825 miles of beaches have been restored. D. Kent Safriet, an attorney for the homeowners from Tallahassee, did not answer a request for comment. Ericka D’Avanzo, local representative of the Surfrider Foundation, said she doesn’t expect the court to rule until June or July of 2010. She said it appeared in court Dec. 2 that the justices were divided. Liberal justices seemed unconvinced the state’s Supreme Court ruling departed from precedent, according to The Wall Street Journal and other publications covering the hearing. Justice Antonin Scalia said people pay a lot of money for beachfront property, but that the homeowners received a good deal when the sand was replaced. But conservative justices seemed more inclined to let property owners raise a de-facto taking claim, according to published reports. Justice John Paul Stevens was absent from the bench, suggesting he had recused himself from the case because he owns beachfront property in Broward County. Erosion threatens nearly 59 percent of Florida's 825 miles of sandy beaches, according to the Department of Environmental Protection. Under a 1961 law, the state dredges sand from one area and dumps it on another, expanding the width of a threatened beach.
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