Littoral Property Rights In Florida

Florida property value depends heavily on the beaches. The majority of the most valuable property in Florida is on or near the beaches. When a person makes a costly investment in beachfront property, they hope to get a just value out of that investment, in terms of their use of and access to the water and their ability to rent or resell the property based on a continued use of and access to the water. Owners of beachfront property have special rights when it comes to the beach, known as "littoral rights," that the government cannot alter without affecting the value of beachfront property, which requires an eminent domain proceeding that results in full compensation.

If you believe the action of a local, state, or federal government agency is infringing on your rights as a beachfront property owner, contact the Florida Property Rights Law Firm, P.A. for a free consultation.

Public Beaches and Littoral Rights

According to the Florida Constitution, in accordance with traditional common-law understandings of property rights, beachfront property owners do not actually own the beaches. Article X, section 11 of the constitution states, "The title to lands under navigable waters, within the boundaries of the state, which have not been alienated, including beaches below mean high water lines, is held by the state, by virtue of its sovereignty, in trust for all the people." All Florida beaches are public property for public use.

Beachfront property owners, according to a Supreme Court of Florida decision dated September 29, 2008, "have no rights in navigable waters and sovereignty lands that are superior to other members of the public in regard to bathing, fishing, and navigation." However, beachfront property owners do have a number of special rights, known as littoral rights, with respect to the beaches. These rights are:

  • The right to have access to the water
  • The right to reasonably use the water
  • The right to accretion and reliction
  • The right to the unobstructed view of the water

If any government action interferes with these rights, this can be the basis for an inverse condemnation action to require that the government either undo the action that limited your littoral rights or give full compensation for your loss.

Dispute over Littoral Rights

The recent Supreme Court of Florida (SCF) decision cited above is still in dispute. On June 15, 2009, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) agreed to hear an appeal against the decision. At issue is the SCF's upholding of a beach renourishing project that beachfront property owners say deprives them of their littoral rights without just compensation. In particular, Walton County property owners claimed that the establishment of an Erosion Control Line acting as a fixed boundary between the beach (public lands) and the beachfront (private lands), infringed on beachfront property owners' right of accretion. The SCF decision relies on the doctrine of avulsion, in which a fixed property line is maintained between public and private land during "catastrophic" changes in the shoreline. The Erosion Control Line, established with reference to the Mean High Water Level, determined with a 19-year survey, is according to SCF designed to protect both public and private interests against catastrophic changes on endangered beaches.

When SCOTUS agreed to hear this case, it put the SCF decision into question, although SCOTUS most likely would not have decided to hear the case unless it wanted to make a decision with ramification far beyond Florida. Currently, similar cases related to beach renourishment and rights to accretion and reliction are being considered in Hawaii, Virginia, and elsewhere.

At the Florida Property Rights Firm, P.A., we monitor all ongoing legal activity and their impact on your property rights. To learn more about your littoral property rights and whether they have been infringed, please schedule a free consultation today.