Private-Property Rights Issues Involving Water Continue to Make News

One of the big eminent domain stories of the last few weeks involved the oral argument at the U.S. Supreme Court in the Florida beach case.  That case involves whether a government program to add sand to parts of the Florida coastline, creating new public beaches in front of private property that had been beach front constitutes a taking.  For more information about that case, see my December 15 article, "Erosion Control, or Coney Island South?" published in the Los Angeles Daily Journal. 

Now, two other water-related takings issues are making news.  The first, as reported December 14 by Fox News in "Not So Private Property?: Clean Water Restoration Act Raises Fears of Land Grab," involves a proposed amendment to the federal Clean Water Act that would, if adopted, remove the word "navigable" from the definition of the water bodies falling within the Act's scope.  What makes the elimination of one word so controversial?

As currently written, the Clean Water Act regulates discharges into certain bodies of water, including any "navigable waters."  (What constitutes "navigable waters" is a whole different can of worms, especially since the Act has been interpreted to encompass not only navigable waters, but also waters with a "significant nexus" to a navigable waterway -- and because the definition of "navigable waters" has been the subject of recent litigation.)  

Some claim that eliminating "navigable" from the Clean Water Act's scope will create major problems:

The Clean Water Restoration Act currently pending in the U.S. Senate could reach to control even a "seasonal puddle" on private property. . . .

This bill is described by opponents as a sweeping overhaul of the Clean Water Act that could threaten both physical land and jobs by wiping out some farmers entirely.

Not surprisingly, the Act's proponents feel differently, claiming the amendment contains sweeping exemptions to ensure that it does not unduly impact existing agricultural uses.  

The second issue comes from a December 15 Fox News story, "Not So Private Property?: Florida Man Takes Eminent Domain Case to High Court."  It involves a case my colleague Brad Kuhn reported on last month in In Determining Just Compensation, Should Zoning Regulations Enacted to Depress a Property's Market Value for Future Acquisition be Ignored?   The question there is whether an effort to down-zone a property, deflating its value in anticipation of a future government acquisition qualifies as compensable.  The case arises from efforts to expand the Florida Everglades National Park and has a factual history dating back to the 1960s. 

One of the homeowners impacted by those efforts has fought his case through the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, which sided with the government and found the down-zoning is not compensable.   However, the owner has petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to take the case.  As reported by Fox News,

The high court hasn't decided yet whether it will hear the appeal in the potentially landmark property rights case -- 480 Acres of Land and Gilbert Fornatora v. U.S.

So is there a thread that ties together beach protection, navigable waters, and an expanded everglades park?  Maybe this:  if the global warming scientists are correct, the world is facing rising sea levels and changing weather patterns.  If this is the case, the importance of clear jurisprudence concerning the interrelationship among property lines, property rights, and the location of water bodies will similarly rise.  Whether these cases ultimately create that clarity or simply add to the existing confusion remains to be seen.  

  • Rick E. Rayl

    Rick Rayl is an experienced litigator on a broad range of complex civil litigation issues.  His practice is concentrated primarily on eminent domain, inverse condemnation, and other real-estate-valuation disputes.  His public ...

California Eminent Domain Report is a one-stop resource for everything new and noteworthy in eminent domain. We cover all aspects of eminent domain, including condemnation, inverse condemnation and regulatory takings. We also keep track of current cases, project announcements, budget issues, legislative reform efforts and report on all major eminent domain conferences and seminars in the Western United States.

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