A contentious U.S. Supreme Court ruling handed down Friday could strengthen the hand of private property owners as they battle Walton County over ownership of local beaches.
In a 5-4 ruling, justices held that private property owners can file directly into federal court in cases in which they feel their rights have been violated by the state or a local government.
The ruling was made in deciding a Pennsylvania case in which a woman claimed she was not fairly compensated by the town she lives in when it declared she could not prevent people from accessing her property to visit a small cemetery that had been discovered there.
In making its ruling, the new conservative majority on the court overturned a 1985 decision. That ruling forced private citizens to take claims they’d had land taken from them without being fairly compensated through the state courts before seeking relief in the federal justice system.
“The court’s ruling means citizens will now have a choice about whether to go to state or federal courts,” the Associated Press reported.
The ruling drew harsh criticism from the more liberal minority of justices serving on the Supreme Court.
Walton County has petitioned in Circuit Court for a declaration of customary use, which, if granted, would state that the county’s beaches are open to everyone by virtue of the fact the coastline has been accessed and utilized by mankind for as long as civilization has existed.
Hundreds of beachfront property owners are contesting the legality of the county’s customary use declaration. They say the beaches behind their homes, in many cases stretching all the way to the water, belong to them.
Nearly every claim made by private property owners against Walton County accuses the county of violating the owners' Fifth Amendment rights. The Fifth Amendment prohibits the taking of private property for public use without providing just compensation.
“At some point in this the court will deal with that Fifth Amendment issue,” said land-use attorney Dana Matthews, who is representing several private property owners.
Last year’s passage of state H.B. 631 wiped out an existing Walton County Customary Use Ordinance and has forced the county to prove its claims of customary use.
Since the bill passed, many homeowners have put up "no trespassing" signs, erected fencing or hired security guards to keep beachgoers from traversing the wide sandy portions of the beach they claim.
David Theriaque, the attorney representing the county, said if his side wins the customary use battle, it is conceivable property owners will take advantage of Friday’s ruling to avail themselves of the federal courts.
“There will be no property owner compensation if Judge (David) Green rules in favor of customary use,” he said. “I could see someone saying, ‘This constitutes a taking of my property.’ With this ruling, if they make that claim, they can go to federal court.”
Matthews called Friday’s ruling “very interesting.” He said he’s already had discussions about its significance with fellow attorneys.
One key advantage to petitioning directly to the federal courts would be the cost savings to litigants, Matthews said.
“Whether it will lead to anything regarding the customary use case remains to be seen, but it is going to breed a lot of academic discussion among the land-use lawyers involved in the case,” he said.