Editorial: Big beach-rights case

The Providence Journal
Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear a fascinating case pitting property owners on Florida’s Panhandle against their state’s plans to replenish the sand in front of their beaches. The waterfront people don’t want that “favor” because in adding new sand in front of their private beaches, the state would create a public beach between their properties and the ocean. The six property owners who sued the state assert that their land would lose value because they no longer control everything between their homes and the deep blue sea.

The Florida Supreme Court ruled against the property owners, who took their case to the U.S. Supreme Court. The nine justices have been holding hearings on whether anyone’s Fifth Amendment rights were violated. The landowners frame Florida’s plan as a government “taking” of their property without just compensation.

We believe that beaches should be accessible to all the people. But this belief has not been enshrined in Florida law. Florida argues, meanwhile, that creating public beaches nurtures tourism, a mainstay of its economy.

Perhaps still smarting from the outrage following the court’s decision in Kelo v. New London, another property-rights case, the justices might look more kindly on the suing party’s argument. Kelo had let New London condemn a working-class neighborhood to please the corporate types at a Pfizer research center, just before the pharmaceuticals company said it would move out of town. The plaintiffs in Kelo are perhaps more sympathetic than the six property owners defending their rights to own everything to the shoreline.

On the other hand, one can see an argument that no one’s property is being “seized” by the addition of sand in front of others’ sand. If the owners’ beaches were being eroded up to their terraces we could imagine their demanding that the taxpayers pay to restore their sands.

Speaking of which, all these efforts to build up beaches are environmentally damaging and ultimately futile. While it builds up beaches in one place, it degrades beaches elsewhere. And dredging up sand can destroy coral reefs and other underwater formations that provide natural protection against erosion. For instance, the beach in Hollywood, Fla., has to be continually replenished because earlier dredging destroyed its coral barrier.

These are not the Supreme Court’s concerns. This is a property-rights case, and we can see the decision going either way. But if this were strictly an environmental matter, we’d want the state to leave its shoreline as God made it — and to let only God change it.

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