- Associated Press - Thursday, June 17, 2010

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court ruled on Thursday that Florida can undertake beach-widening projects without paying beachfront property owners who lose exclusive access to the water.

The court, by an 8-0 vote, rejected a challenge by six homeowners in Florida’s Panhandle who argued that a beach-widening project changed their oceanfront property into oceanview. Justice John Paul Stevens took no part in the case in which the court affirmed an earlier ruling.

Private property advocates had hoped the court would rule for the first time that a court decision can amount to a taking of property.

The court’s four conservatives — Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas — were prepared to rule that way, even though the homeowners still would have lost in this case, Scalia said in his opinion for the court. But they lacked a fifth vote.

The Constitution requires governments to pay “just compensation” when they take private property for public use.

The homeowners said a Florida Supreme Court ruling in favor of the erosion-control project “suddenly and dramatically changed” state law on beach property and caused their property values to decline. The homeowners wanted the state to pay them undetermined compensation for “taking” their property, which Florida law had long recognized as extending to the water line at high tide.

The Florida decision ratified the designation of the new sand along nearly seven miles of storm-battered beach that stretches through the city of Destin and neighboring Walton County as public property, depriving the homeowners of the exclusive beach access they previously enjoyed.

Justice Stevens sat out the case, presumably because he owns an apartment in an oceanfront building in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. The area has been slated for an erosion-control project similar to the one in the high court case.

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