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Isle beach law must prevail


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POSTED: Friday, December 04, 2009

Disputes over whether shoreline landowners in Hawaii can claim possession to newly formed beach areas are headed toward a state appeals court while the U.S. Supreme Court considers such a beachfront standoff in Florida. Although the two court battles have their differences, the federal high court's ruling could broadly and improperly interfere with states' rights regarding property ownership.

The Hawaii Intermediate Court of Appeals heard arguments last month in a class-action case brought by owners of seaside property challenging the state's land claims. The property owners assert ownership rights to beachfront land that has expanded naturally.

The state owns the beach up to the highest wash of waves — often indicated by vegetation or debris lines. Under common law, private property owners can lose land by erosion or gain it when the beach expands naturally. A 1985 law required private property owners to prove that the new land had existed for 20 years before claiming private ownership.

A 2003 law declared that only the state can register beach land created by natural forces except for eroded land that had been restored naturally.

Circuit Judge Eden Hifo agreed with the property owners in 2006, ruling that the state cannot claim ownership of such land without compensating adjoining property owners who have made valid claims of ownership on the basis of shifts in the high water line.

In Florida, the issue is whether the state must compensate beachfront landowners for pouring sand along the shore and denying them continued ownership of land in direct contact with the sea in Florida's Panhandle region. Beach property has become less valuable beachside property. (That situation is not possible in Hawaii, where all beaches are state-owned and accessible to the public.)

A Florida appeals court ruled that the state had violated the U.S. Constitution by reducing the property's value without paying fair compensation. Overturning the appeals court, Florida's Supreme Court ruled that the state is obligated to maintain the beaches “;in trust for all the people,”; while beachfront owners have no “;vested right”; to beach expansions.

Despite the differences in the two cases, a U.S. high court reversal of the Florida decision could be cited in arguing that owners of property along Hawaii's shores have a vested right in the adjoining beaches. If global warming were to cause ocean levels to rise, as predicted, beachside owners then would be able to assert claim to beaches as high water lines move inward beyond the owners' property lines.