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SURF: United States Supreme Court Ruling Upholds Public Beach Access Rights

June 22, 2010

United States Supreme Court Ruling Upholds Public Beach Access Rights
The Surfrider Foundation won an important victory on June 17th when the United States Supreme Court unanimously ruled (with Justice Stevens abstaining) in Florida Department of Environmental Protection v. Stop the Beach Renourishment to reject the challenge by private homeowners, uphold the constitutionality of Florida’s beach management program, and hold that the beach belongs to the public after beach renourishment has occurred.  
"The United States Supreme Court's decision in this case solidifies the State's authority to act in the interest of the public trust and secure their beach access rights,” says Angela Howe, Surfrider Foundation’s Managing Attorney.  “This decision will help inform courts and legislatures in Texas, Hawaii, California, Oregon, and other places where the Surfrider Foundation is actively fighting for beach access."
In Florida Department of Environmental Protection v. Stop the Beach Renourishment, petitioners asked the Court to endorse the judicial takings doctrine to prevent the public from using the beach in front of the private property owner’s homes once the beach had been renourished.  This would have contradicted nearly 100 years of Supreme Court law on the issue as well as the Florida Supreme Court, which interpreted the state’s common law that public beach access should be protected in the best interest in of citizens in the state.
The Supreme Court’s ruling states that anytime there is a beach renourishment project in Florida, it is an “avulsive event,” meaning with the sudden addition of sand, the normal rights of accretion of the private homeowners do not apply.  The taxpayer-funded sand belongs to and benefits the public and will not be used for extensions of private beaches.
Surfrider Foundation’s brief, written by an expert team of pro bono attorneys at McDermott, Will & Emery LLP, argued that the state’s current regime properly allocates the beach access rights to the public after any beach management or restoration efforts have occurred.  Specifically, our amicus brief argued that the Florida beach access provisions of the beach management program are constitutional on their face, that the private property owner’s private rights are not affected by the Florida law, and that the Judicial Takings Doctrine of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment are not applicable in this case.  Furthermore, the Florida law at issue provides reasonable and appropriate measures to enable the State of Florida to discharge its obligations to the citizens of Florida as trustee, under Article X of the Florida Constitution, of the public’s rights of access to the State’s lands to navigable waters.
Additionally, the Surfrider Foundation’s Emerald Coast Chapter supported the case by providing survey information on beach access use, and members of the Chapter attended the Supreme Court hearing in Washington, DC on December 2, 2009.
"This is a great decision for Surfrider,” says Dan Foster, partner with McDermott, Will & Emery LLP.  “We believe the Supreme Court's decision is consistent with Surfrider's mission to promote the protection and enjoyment of the world's oceans, waves and beaches for all people.  The decision should profoundly affect states' ability to maintain and provide access to beaches for the public."