The Supreme Court of the United States has considered whether Florida beachfront property owners could claim a “taking” when the state filled in the beaches near their property with additional sand.
Florida law provides that the state owns all submerged land under navigable waters and the land between the low tide line and the mean high-tide line. Waterfront property owners own the land up to the high-tide line. These property owners have the right to access the water, right to receive “accretions” from the water, and the right to an unobstructed view of the water. A property owner receives ownership of land gradually added to his/her land through accretion (i.e., land created by deposits naturally added from the water source); however, sudden changes causing additional dry land on a beach is an “avulsion” and the state retains the ownership of that property.
In 1961, Florida created the Beach and Shore Preservation Act (“Act”). The Act contains a process for depositing sand on beaches that have suffered erosion. Local governments apply to the state for beach restoration. If the state decides to proceed with the restoration, an erosion control line is set and the beachfront project uses that line as the new high-tide marker for the project. However, the property line for beachfront property owners does not change when a restoration project commences pursuant to the Act, meaning that their properties could suddenly be much farther away from the water.
Two Florida counties applied to have beaches restored pursuant to the Act. The restoration would add up to 75 feet of dry land to the existing beaches. The state issued the appropriate permits and made plans to commence the security project. A group of beachfront property owners formed a group called Stop the Beach Renourishment, Inc. (“Challenger”) to fight the project. The Challenger filed an action claiming that the renourishment project removed the owners right to receive accretions and maintain contact with the water, and thus constituted an unconstitutional taking. The trial court found the state’s actions to constitute a taking, but the Florida Supreme Court reversed. The Challenger appealed.
The Supreme Court of the United States ruled that the action of the state did not constitute a taking and so affirmed the Florida Supreme Court. Property rights are determined by state law, and so the Court looked at Florida property law to determine if a taking had occurred.
The issue before the Court was whether the state had effected a taking of land by enlarging the beach, removing the right of the property owners to receive accretions. The Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment, applicable to state and local governments via the Fourteenth Amendment, prohibits the government from taking private property without "just compensation." Traditionally, the Court has found two types of takings (a physical occupation of the property by the government or a regulatory taking), but in this case considered whether there could be a third type of taking: a judicial taking.
Looking at the history of decisions addressing takings, the Court found that a party could claim a judicial taking if the party could show a court had reconstructed the state laws in a way that caused a taking of property by the government without compensation. However, the court ruled that the Challenger could not claim a taking by the state’s filling in the beaches. Florida law did not place the property owner’s right to accretions above the government’s right to fill in the submerged land. Prior cases had upheld the state’s right to fill in the submerged land, as did the Act. The property owners also had no right to have their property maintain direct contact with the water, as they claimed. Therefore, the Court ruled that there was no taking by the state because its actions conformed with existing Florida property law.
Stop the Beach Renourishment, Inc. v. Florida Dept. of Env’l Protection, 130 S.Ct. 2592 (U.S. 2010).