U.S. Supreme Court

Beach Parties and Seaside Hot-Dog Stands Figure in High Court Arguments

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Supreme Court justices considered worst-case scenarios for owners of Florida coastal property yesterday in a dispute over whether widened beaches belong to the state, interfering with the landowners’ unfettered access to the water.

Could the state allow a hot dog stand on the new portion of the beach? A portable toilet? An amusement park? A televised spring break party?

Newspapers that covered the arguments include USA Today, the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal (sub. req.).

The Florida Supreme Court had ruled the state owned the enlarged beach area that it had replenished with sand to battle erosion. The threshold question is whether a court’s interpretation of state law can amount to an unconstitutional taking of property, but the justices “leapfrogged” over the issue during much of the arguments, the Times says.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. raised the specter of hot dog stands and an amusement park, although the hot dog scenario interested several justices. Justice Sonia Sotomayor suggested that, even before the beach restoration project, “a hot dog stand could have sat in the water.”

Sotomayor appeared to support the state, along with Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer, according to the Post. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy may have the deciding vote.

Two justices own waterfront property, according to USA Today, and one did not participate in yesterday’s oral arguments. Justice John Paul Stevens owns a condo in a beachfront building in Fort Lauderdale where the beach is scheduled for renourishment, according to the Times and the Post. His apparent recusal raises the possibility of a 4-4 split, which would leave intact the Florida decision favoring the state.

Another justice, Antonin Scalia, owns property in a section of North Carolina’s Outer Banks, according to USA Today. Some landowners there sued in an effort to keep the public off of beaches in front of their homes, but a state court dismissed the case in 2003.

During the arguments, Scalia noted that “people pay a lot more money for beachfront homes.” He said a private beach is “quite different from having a house behind the beach at Coney Island.”

But if a landowner did win a takings claim, the amount of compensation may be small, he said. “The state gave you some quid pro quo for this,” he said, by fighting further erosion. “So, who knows? Maybe that’s sufficient compensation.”

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