Of Beaches, Boundaries and SOBs
75 Pages Posted: 6 Oct 2009 Last revised: 17 Jun 2010
Date Written: October 5, 2009
As sandy beach property has become more scarce and more expensive, the controversies between upland owners and public users of the beach have increased. The public has an absolute right under the public trust doctrine to use the beach below the mean high water line (MHWL) boundary that defines the limits of state lands and littoral ownership, but “knowing” where that ambulating line is at any given time is virtually impossible. This uncertainty exacerbates the tensions that in Florida are leading to clashes between private land owners and the public. Setting a fixed boundary would lead to more certainty and consequently less controversy, but both legal and policy issue arise concerning this approach. In once instance, however - setting a fixed boundary between upland owners and submerged, public trust lands for purposes of government restoration of critically eroding beaches - a fixed boundary with appropriate protections for littoral owners seems to address problems of certainty, as well as legal and policy concerns. The Florida Beach and Shore Preservation Act’s (BSPA) use of this approach has been challenged in the Florida Supreme Court and subsequently in the U.S. Supreme Court in Stop the Beach Renourishment, Inc. v. Fla. Dep't of Envtl. Protection. This article explores public and private interests in beaches and shores, and how the complexities of coastal boundaries contribute to controversies about the use of beaches. The article then looks at how the BSPA attempts to protect both the private and public interests in the coast through, among other provisions, establishing a fixed boundary for restored beaches. Finally, the challenges confronting Florida’s beach management that have arisen as a result of suits in the Florida Supreme Court and now in the U.S. Supreme Court are analyzed.
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