June 17, 2010 / 4:06 PM / 10 years ago

US top court backs Florida beach-widening program

* Florida program to save miles of eroding shorelines

* Ruling could affect coastal communities nationwide

By James Vicini

WASHINGTON, June 17 (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday rejected the arguments by waterfront homeowners who said their property had been taken without compensation because Florida’s beach-restoration project deprived them of exclusive access to the Gulf of Mexico.

The justices unanimously upheld a Florida Supreme Court ruling that backed the state’s program to bring in sand to save miles of eroding shorelines without paying the homeowners who lose exclusive access to the water.

Beach restoration has become a major issue in Florida after several hurricanes and other storms caused severe erosion. The case has been closely watched by property rights advocates, environmentalists and state officials.

Six homeowners in Florida’s Walton County had argued the program resulted in a strip of state-owned sand between their property and the Gulf of Mexico, depriving them of their exclusive beach access and violating their rights.

The widening of up to 75 feet of sand gave the state ownership of that part of the beach. The homeowners said their beach access would be limited without proper compensation.

The Florida Supreme Court ruled the state has a duty to protect the beaches and said a state law allows the program without compensating property owners in some cases.

The Obama administration and more than half the nation’s 50 states had supported Florida and urged the court to reject the homeowners’ legal challenge.

In the opinion for the court, Justice Antonin Scalia said past cases have held that the state has the right to fill in submerged land.

“It cannot be said, therefore, that the Florida Supreme Court’s decision deprived” the homeowners “of an established property right,” Scalia said in summarizing the ruling from the bench.

Justice John Paul Stevens, who plans to retire from the court at the end of the term later this month, did not take part in the ruling. He has a residence in a beachfront building in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

The Supreme Court case is Stop the Beach Renourishment v. Florida Department of Environmental Protection, No. 08-1151. (Editing by Bill Trott)

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