By Kelly Wolfe
The U.S. Supreme Court in June affirmed a ruling that said when public money is used for beach re-nourishment, the beach then becomes publicly owned, despite deeds indicating buyers owned the beach down to the high water mark.
The ruling is confusing to landowners like Merrilee Lundquist of Ocean Ridge, who said she signed an agreement allowing the state to re-nourish the beach when needed, but she wasn’t told at that time she would be giving up ownership of the land. Plus, Lundquist said, what happens when the re-nourished beach has washed away.
“At first, it was like a road in front of our house,” Lundquist said in the months after the state poured sand onto her property. “Now, all that sand is gone.”
The Supreme Court, in an 8-0 vote June 17, rejected a challenge by six homeowners in Florida’s Panhandle who argued that a beach-widening project was essentially a taking of property without “just compensation,” as the Constitution requires.
Attorneys for the plaintiffs did not return calls seeking comment.
Justice John Paul Stevens recused himself from the case, presumably because he owns a waterfront condo in Fort Lauderdale.
Daniel Bates, director of environmental enhancement and restoration for Palm Beach County, said he was glad the Supreme Court upheld the ruling, and said he hasn’t had many complaints from property owners on this coast, anyway.
“In our experience, property owners support our re-nourishment agreements,” he said.
There was only one property owner in recent memory that didn’t, Bates said. But that man eventually sold his property to Merrilee Lundquist, who did agree to allow for re-nourishment.
The homeowners who filed suit in Destin wanted the state to pay them undetermined compensation for “taking’’ their property, which Florida law had long recognized as extending to the water line at high tide. New sand along seven miles of storm-battered beach had essentially deprived homeowners of the exclusive beach they once enjoyed, they argued.
Lundquist said she doesn’t like the way the lawsuit painted beachfront homeowners.
“I think beach owners are good stewards and why not,” Lundquist said. “I go down and pick up garbage all the time.”
Lundquist said she loves living on the beach, and doesn’t mind when people lay out in the sun on what is essentially her property. But it often doesn’t end there.
“I came home one day to find a teenage couple in my pool,” she said. “I had a $600 gate broken. People have stolen my plants. It’s not frightening, but it’s part of being there.”
Bates said both Jupiter and Ocean Ridge are up for beach re-nourishment projects within the next two to three years.