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Date of Issue: December 09, 2009

Supreme Court holds key to next Island renourishment

A U.S. Supreme Court decision expected in June could decide whether the next Anna Maria Island beach renourishment project will proceed as planned in 2014, or if Manatee County has to find millions of dollars in compensation to pay private beach owners to renourish some Island beaches.

Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court took up the case of six Florida condominium owners in Destin who had sued the state for compensation for a planned 7-mile beach renourishment project that would encompass the condo association’s private beach.

After the Florida Supreme Court upheld the state’s right to renourish eroded beaches because they are public property, the six owners formed Stop the Beach Renourishment Inc. and challenged the constitutionality of the decision on the grounds that the state was taking property without just compensation.

 The U.S. Supreme Court agreed in October to hear the case.

 The Florida Supreme Court determined that any new beach created by renourishment is on public property and the condominium owners are not entitled to payment.

Stop the Beach Renourishment countered that allowing the public to use its private beach without compensation to them amounts to a “taking of property.” Stop the Beach wants to be paid for what it claims is its property, not state property.

According to an Associated Press story, attorney D. Kent Safriet, representing Stop the Beach Renourishment, said the U.S. Constitution requires “just compensation” when government takes private property for public use. He said that his clients also were entitled to be paid for the loss of value of their property because, after the renourishment, they would no longer have an exclusive, private beach, just “beach-view” condominiums.

 At issue is where private property ends and a public beach begins.

 The state has claimed that all it’s doing is adding more beach to land that is already public, not taking any from the condominium association.

Safriet said Florida courts have long held that a property line extends to the mean-high-water mark, while state beach renourishment projects use the erosion control line, a permanent marker, possibly farther inland from the water’s edge, to determine where private property ends.

Safriet claimed that local officials are just trying to add more public beach for the tourists, not save an eroding beach.

“They are trying to take a beach without paying for it,” he said.

Not so, said Destin city manager Greg Kisela in the same AP account. The beach is public because the state owns the bottom land. If the beach erodes and is not replaced, that damages the local economy and lowers property values, he said.

 “Beaches are the economic engine that drive this market,” and renourishment is needed to maintain the beaches and the economy, Kisela said. The vast majority of beachfront property owners along the seven-mile stretch have agreed to the renourishment plan.

The U.S. Supreme Court is being asked to rule for the first time that a lower court ruling can amount to a taking of property.

A decision is not expected until June.

The Obama administration has given an opinion in favor of the state’s position.

U.S. Solicitor General Elena Kagan wrote in a brief that if the U.S. Supreme Court were to rule against the Florida Supreme Court, “It should only be when a sate court radically and unexpectedly deviated from settled state property law. The decision of the Florida Supreme Court is not in that category.”

Manatee County officials planning the next beach renourishment project are waiting the Supreme Court decision with trepidation.

 Manatee County natural resources director Charlie Hunsicker said the case is “extremely complicated,” but a ruling in favor of the condominium association could have a disastrous effect on the cost of the upcoming Anna Maria Island beach renourishment project.

“We would have to pay for beach property, and we only have so much money in the pot for beach renourishment,” Hunsicker said.

He declined to speculate how much money would be needed to purchase beachfront land on Anna Maria Island for renourishment, but considering the price of beachfront property, the amount could be considerable.

“All we can do is wait for the decision,” Hunsicker said.

The 2014 Island renourishment project is estimated to cost $16 million and has no provision or funds for property acquisition.