Real Estate

Beach Rights and the Law

Now that summer's here, tourists and locals flock to beaches to enjoy sand and surf. Beach umbrellas pop up, coolers are toted, and oversize towels are spread across warm sand. But what if that sight is now blocking your view, and sand is found where the ocean once was? The US Supreme Court recently considered that question in a case filed by Florida beach property owners.

New Jersey Beach Access Rules Eased

In 2007, New Jersey's Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) created harsh rules that were a sore subject for towns along its shoreline. Many local businesses and towns found themselves in a "no man's land" Dispute. New zoning regulations required shore towns to install access pathways, parking lots and restrooms in certain areas. This meant chasing down the land owners to get their approval for easements where these would be built.

Towns wouldn't receive state funds the projects if they didn't meet the requirements. The mayor of Avalon called the regulations "shortsighted and ridiculous." He filed suit against the state on behalf of the town, as did the town of Stone Harbor.

The suit claimed that the state didn't have the authority to pass these strict and far-reaching regulations. The towns also pointed out that requiring beaches to be accessible 24 hours a day exposed the towns and their citizens to danger.

New Jersey courts repealed several parts of the regulations, and questioned the authority of the DEP to implement the law itself. The DEP proposed newly revised, less burdensome regulations. Towns are given greater freedom to adapt regulations to their own needs. Twenty-four hour access would no longer be required for commercial marinas. And many types of facilities (such as single-family homes and duplexes) would be exempt from the regulations.

Beach Restoration Program in Florida

In Florida, a different legal issue has come to the surface. Through massive efforts to save Florida shorelines, the state has been pumping sand. The hope is these newly-appearing beaches will bring tourism and attract visitors and businesses to the area.

But owners of ocean-front property aren't thrilled with the project. They're worried these new strips of sand, which have been deemed "public property," will obstruct their view of the ocean. They also fear their property values and enjoyment will be reduced as public beachgoers will now appear in place of their wide-open view of the ocean.

A group of these property owners filed suit in Florida, claiming these sand-shifting projects caused their property lines to no longer touch the water. The Florida Supreme Court said it didn't matter, as they still had the same access to the beach.

US Supreme Court Speaks about Constitutional "Taking"

The US Supreme Court agreed with the Florida Supreme Court, and said the state was filling in submerged land belonging to the public and the property owners hadn't suffered any loss. The justices were unanimous on that point - 8 to 0. Justice John Paul Stevens didn't participate in the decision, as he owns land on a Florida beach that's scheduled for restoration.

The US Supreme Court also spoke to the big picture question: Did the Florida court's action, confirming the Florida's right to create the sand strips, constitute a "taking" of private property by the State? On that question, the justices were split, four to four.

Zoning and Property Rights

Zoning and property use issues are managed by city, county, state and federal governments for various uses: Residential, business, recreation, agricultural or industrial. Generally, the government has the right to say how land is used, but there are usually hearings where the public can hear both sides of the proposal.

If you're a business owner who doesn't want additional security expenses or a beach-goer who wants better beaches, it's up to you to make your voice heard.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • Can the state or any other government office just come in and take my property?
  • Am I entitled to compensation if the state changes my property borders?
  • If I leave near a beach, and it's being eroded, can I pump sand in myself?
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