Supreme Court Rejects Beachfront Property Owners’ “Takings” Claim

Today, in an important victory for those who care about government’s ability to protect the environment, (including Constitutional Accountability Center, which filed a brief in the case) the Supreme Court unanimously rejected an absurd takings claim by a handful of Florida property owners who objected to a beach restoration project on Florida’s Gulf Coast that not only restored eroded beaches, but also enhanced property values (something most property owners, unsurprisingly, supported). Justice Scalia wrote for the Court, while Justice Kennedy (joined by Justice Sotomayor) and Justice Breyer (joined by Justice Ginsburg) each filed separate opinions concurring in part and in the judgment. (Justice Stevens did not participate in this case, presumably because he is a Florida beachfront property owner himself.) The Justices were unanimous in holding that the property owners “loss” did not constitute an uncompensated taking. However, they were evenly divided on the question of whether a “judicial taking” can ever occur.

At issue in Stop the Beach Renourishment v. Florida Department of Environmental Protection was whether a decision by the Florida Supreme Court upholding Florida’s beach restoration program constituted a “judicial taking.” In 1961, Florida introduced its Beach and Shore Preservation Act to address beach erosion caused by rising sea-levels and hurricanes, which have grown worse in recent years due to global warming. Under the Act, the state may agree to rebuild a highly-eroded beach area and then maintain the beach to a fixed boundary called the erosion control line. As a result, the boundary between the state land and private property shifts from the variable mean high tide mark to a fixed erosion control line. In 2003, the city of Destin, Florida applied for such a restoration project; however, a group of beachfront property owners challenged this change in property boundaries as a violation of state law. The property owners lost their case before the Florida Supreme Court, and sought federal Supreme Court review on the theory that, in denying their state law claims, the Florida Supreme Court so distorted Florida law that its ruling amounted to a “judicial takings” — a species of takings claim that the U.S. Supreme Court had hinted at, but never officially recognized.

It is this question – whether a “judicial taking” can even occur – that was left unanswered in today’s opinions, with four of the Justices (Scalia, Roberts, Thomas, and Alito) arguing it could occur and the other four (Kennedy, Sotomayor, Breyer, and Ginsburg) arguing that the Court need not answer that question in this case. Presumably, Justice Stevens, who has written a number of brilliant and important rulings in support of state and local environmental laws in recent years would have sided with Florida and created a majority against Scalia’s judicial takings theory of liability, but he was recused, making the most notable ruling in the case the fact that every one of the remaining Justices agreed that regardless of whether a judicial taking can occur, it did not in this instance.

Constitutional Accountability Center, along with the State and Local Legal Center, filed a brief in Stop the Beach on behalf of a preeminent group of clients including the National League of Cities and the National Association of Counties in October 2009, supporting Florida. Our brief urged the Court not to create a “judicial takings” doctrine, because there already exist well-established and entirely adequate avenues for bringing any valid claim that a state court has interpreted state law to evade federal Takings Clause mandates.

Today’s decision thus supports Florida’s efforts to restore eroded beaches and preserves the ability of state and local governments to respond to changing environmental conditions. As the oil spill now ravaging our Nation’s coastlines vividly demonstrates, it is crucially important that government have the authority to step in to protect our beaches and coastal communities.

A brief submitted by the Coastal States Organization (CSO) in the case also makes clear that the ruling today is very good news for efforts to respond to global warming. CSO’s brief discussed the impact that climate change will likely have on shorelines, and explained why state and local governments need a variety of tools at their disposal to maintain and protect important coastal areas. A ruling in favor of the landowners in STBR could have restricted these efforts to protect shorelines and coastal ecosystems wherever they lay along, or within, private property, though the need to protect the integrity of such shorelines is becoming an increasingly important issue.

This case wasn’t about property rights – most landowners on the Gulf Coast favored Florida’s multi-million dollar effort to preserve the beaches – it was about a few holdouts seeking to put the brakes on a popular government program. While the Supreme Court remains sharply divided ideologically in takings cases, every Justice wisely recognized there was no merit to the landowners’ claim in this case.