WASHINGTON — Florida homeowners argued Wednesday before the U.S. Supreme Court that they should be compensated for a beach restoration project that leaves their private beachfront property open to the public.
Though the case involves just six homeowners in Florida's Panhandle, beach restoration advocates warn that a loss in court could slow efforts to shore up eroding beaches across the country. At issue is whether the Florida Supreme Court — by siding with state efforts to restore miles of beach in the Panhandle — took away homeowners' property rights without offering them compensation.
Tallahassee attorney Kent Safriet, an attorney for the property owners, argued that the court "suddenly and dramatically'' changed the homeowners' property rights by taking away their right to property that touches the water. Between their sandy swatch of property now rests 75 feet of public beach.
The justices appeared divided — even among themselves.
At times, Justice Antonin Scalia appeared to side with the residents, noting that "people pay a lot more money for beachfront homes.
"And that's quite different from having a house behind the beach at Coney Island, isn't it?,'' he asked Safriet.
Yet minutes later, Scalia seemed incredulous that homeowners would object to shoring up a storm-eroded coastline.
"I'm not sure it's a bad deal,'' Scalia said, asking Safriet if any other homeowners had objected to the beach restoration project. "If I had a place and it's being eroded by hurricanes constantly, I'm not sure whether I wouldn't want to have the sand replaced, even at the cost of having a 60-foot stretch that the state owns.''
Safriet said, however, the beach in question was not eroding. He and the homeowners have argued that the county was interested in creating more public beaches in an area where development is crowding out open space.
"These property owners did not view that they were gaining anything,'' Safriet said.
His arguments appeared to gain favor with Justice Samuel Alito and Chief Justice John G. Roberts, who was the first to raise the hypothetical that the homeowners wouldn't be able to block intrusions like hot dog carts on the public beach near their homes.
Alito questioned Florida Solicitor General Scott Makar as to whether "televised spring break beach parties" in front of the residents' homes wouldn't have an effect on their property values.
"Suppose that a city decided it wanted to attract more students who were going to the beach in Florida for spring break, and so therefore it decided it was going to create a huge beach in front of privately owned homes,'' Alito said. "Under the decision of the Florida Supreme Court, I don't see anything that would stop the city from doing that.''
The state's beach restoration effort, Makar replied, is called the "Beach and Shore Preservation Act. It isn't designed to create some recreational playground for spring breakers.''
Justice Stephen Breyer appeared sympathetic to the state, telling Safriet, the attorney for the homeowners, that, "you didn't lose one inch. All you lost was the right to touch the water . . . .Don't you have a right towalk across and put your boat in the water and swim, and nobody can stop you?"
And when Roberts suggested that the homeowners would have no standing to prevent a hot dog stand from being erected, it was Breyer who asked whether state law didn't ensure the homeowners "peaceful enjoyment'' of their property.
U.S. Deputy Solicitor Edwin Kneedler supplied the hypothetical amusement park, arguing that the state properly moved to shore up a beach. "This is not filling for an amusement park,'' he told the justices. "This is adding something that is very germane to the maintenance of the beach, for critical public purposes.''
Justice John Paul Stevens, who owns a condo in Florida, sat out the case, but didn't provide a reason.
Several Panhandle residents who side with the property owners, but whose claims were dismissed from the case, attended the arguments and hoped for an outcome sympathetic to their side.
"Instead of having a private beach with a beachfront designation, I have a beachfront view and a public park that's been added to the back of my property,'' said Denny Jones of Destin, noting his view of the Gulf of Mexico is often obscured by a sea of beach tents and umbrellas. "It certainly has ruined our privacy. It's a constant war on our beaches.''