Beachfront property owners deserve justices' support

Friday, December 4, 2009

MANY owners of oceanfront property welcome government-funded projects to restore eroded beaches. Not so six Florida homeowners, who deserve to prevail in a case heard Wednesday before the U.S. Supreme Court.

The dispute involves state efforts to restore 6.9 miles of private beach along the Florida Panhandle that the state said had been eroded by hurricanes. The six property owners have single-family homes that sit on private beachfront. The state wanted to haul in tons of sand to create a new beach that would extend 75 feet seaward from where the private property ended. The new stretch of beach would be wedged between the private property and the ocean and would be the property of the state.

The property owners argued that by separating the private property from the water through the insertion of the public beach, the state was unilaterally altering the terms of ownership, potentially diminishing the value of their property. This, they said, violated their constitutional right to be compensated for any government "taking" of private property. They lost resoundingly before the Florida Supreme Court, which ignored decades of established law to conclude that Florida law had never recognized the right of private property to touch the water's edge.

The U.S. Supreme Court tries to avoid meddling in state court interpretations of state law, but this case cries out for federal review to guard against violation of the homeowners' Fifth Amendment rights against uncompensated takings. If allowed to stand, the Florida court's ruling could be read, as several justices pointed out, to allow the state at any time -- not just as a result of erosion -- to rewrite private deeds and ownership rights by creating other such public beaches in an effort to build up tourism.

States have a responsibility to protect their resources, and in Florida no natural resource is more precious than the state's coastal lands. Some measure of government intervention may at times be necessary to mitigate extreme weather events, such as hurricanes, as well as the gradual but often devastating effects of erosion. But government entities should not have the right to unilaterally change the nature of private ownership -- and potentially the nature of the property itself -- without the consent of the owners or, alternatively, without paying "just compensation" to owners whose rights have been breached or whose property has been seized. The compensation should not depend on whether those rights were taken by eminent domain or as a result of a judicial decree.

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