Land Use and Local Government Law and Litigation

The Law Office of Robert K. Lincoln, P.A.  provides legal services to private and public entities involved in complex land use disputes.  Hiring an attorney is an important decision that should not be based solely upon advertisements.  Before you decide, ask and I will provide free information about my experience and qualifications. 

Fifth District: Volusia County Must Demonstrate Historic Use of Beach

In Trepanier et al v. County of Volusia, the Fifth District got into a veritable scrum of overlapping issues involving the County's assertion of the right to occupy platted lots. That are beachfront. It overturned a summary judgment on behalf of the County for most of the counts, but basically blew that takings issue (more below) and upheld the lower court.

A bunch of folks have beach front lots, with a seawall back into the property. Used to be lots of beach in front of the platted lots, but hurricanes resulted in what appears to be avulsion (not gradual erosion, but sudden loss of land).

The County then decided that it would help people invade the lots. It staked out areas up to the dune line (way past the high water mark), and delineated areas in which people could drive and park that were within the platted area of the lots. This appears to have been the veritable straw, as the various landowners seem to have been accepting of some give and take with the public for crossing or sitting on the beach, but didn't like the cars.

Suit ensues, with claims of trespass and taking, as well as requests for declaratory and injunctive relief.

The County not only claims that the entire beach in Volusia County (more on the definition) is open to the use and access of the public, but that cars can use it, too. Yes, Tona-Roma returns, with a vengeance (montazuma's vengence). The County demands that the court establish an easement across the landowners' lots up to the seawall or line of permanent vegetation. Not only that, but the County actually counter claims against the homeowners for some ancient cause called "perpresture" -- which the court explains in a footnote is "[a]n encroachment upon public rights and easements by appropriation to private use of that which belongs to the public." Yep, the County claimed that, by asserting that they still owned their lots and had any right to exclude the public (or at least its cars), the homeowners were stealing from the public.

Lenin would be so proud to know that Volusia County agrees that property is theft. (remember the right to exclude, core stick in that bundle?) On the County's motion for summary judgment, the circuit court also apparently pulled out a copy of "What is to Be Done?" along with its Southern Reporter. In what sounds like excrutiating detail, the circuit court turned effective title much of the lots to the County, ruling that (quoting from the 5th DCA opinion):

This court declares that the defendant, COUNTY OF VOLUSIA, on behalf of the
public, holds a superior claim to possession and use of the beach landward of
the mean low water mark of the Atlantic Ocean to the place where there is marked change in material or physiographic form, or to the line of permanent vegetation in accordance with the definition set forth in Fla. Stat. section 161.54(3) (2004).

Plaintiffs are permanently enjoined from impeding public access to the beach or from acting in any manner inconsistent with the free use of the beach by the public,
including access by motor vehicle, subject to the regulatory power of the County of Volusia.

Ok, so first the Court declares that the County actually owns the real rights to the beach for the public (yeah, Lenin!) - for what else is a "superior claim to possession and use"? The court then declares that the area of the beach is defined not by common law, but by Florida Statutes. It enjoins the landowners from acting "in any manner inconsistent with the free use of the beach by the public," which appears to me to mean that the public has a right to set up a tent in front of the Plaintiffs lots to enjoy the beach, but if the Plaintiffs do the same thing they are in contempt.
The circuit court does a handwave to Tona-Rama, but completely bastardizes the fact-specific holding that case. For those who don't read all the obscure land use cases, Tona-Rama held that (in very fact specific circumstances) parts of the beach at Daytona Beach around the pier had been subject to public use for so long that a prescriptive easement had been established, one that prevented the owner of the pier from developing on parts of the beach that had been essentially the public beach. The circuit court reached around Tona-Rama and added a dose of its own public policy to hold that the beaches throughout Volusia County (again, defined by the statute) are public as a matter of law, and open to vehicles.

It also finds prescriptive use rights based on (uncited) open and historic use of the beach.

Oh, and it doesn't stop.

The circuit court also agrees with the County that whenever the beach changes landward, the public's rights automatically migrate with it (no review whatsoever of whether changes are avulsion or erosion - too petty a detail to consider when homeowners are stealing the beach).

The Fifth District, to its credit, puts most of this to a screeching halt. It wants to see a factual record on whether this area of the beach was historically used by cars, and for what part of the beach (like, did people ever drive within the platted lots?). The Fifth also wants findings on the avulsion/erosion issue, and whether the use of the beach was permissive (which doesn't create prescription) versus adverse.

In other words, the Fifth is going to require fairly strict application of the common law principles that underlie Tona-Rama and not simply wink at judicial expropriation of the beach through some newly minted rule of law. The opinion deals with the critical Tona-Rama case this way:

Although we recognize that the issue is far from clear, we conclude, both from
our reading of the supreme court's various opinions in Tona-Rama and from reading the underlying decision of the First District Court of Appeal in City of Daytona Beach v. Tona-Rama, Inc., 271 So. 2d 765 (Fla. 1st DCA 1972), that the intent of the supreme court was to declare the right of customary use in the public only for the area of beach at issue in that case, for which it had an extensive factual record of customary public use. Indeed, the decision of the First District Court of Appeal was explicit in this regard, as it necessarily had to be, because the remedy that court embraced was prescriptive easement.

On the question of whether the right to use the beach above the high water line (if it were established) also moved, the court held that the avulsion/erosion issue had to be addressed. It went on to hold:
Certainly, if it can be shown that, by custom, use of the beach by the public as a thoroughfare has moved seaward and landward onto Appellant's property with the movement of the mean high water line, that public right is inviolate. However, it is not evident, if customary use of a beach is made impossible by the landward shift of the mean high water line, that the areas subject to the public right by custom would move landward with it to preserve public use on private property that previously was not subject to the public's customary right of use.

The Fifth also noted that the entire issue is going to require resolution by the Florida Supreme Court: "We recognize that a question as important as the meaning and scope of Tona-Rama and the migration of the public's customary right to use of the beach will ultimately have to be determined by the Supreme Court of Florida, not this court. We believe, however, that this case should not go to the high court until the evidentiary issues we refer to have been developed in the trial court. "

After all this good work, the district court blows the final act when it upholds the circuit court's dismissal of the landowners' takings claims:

Finally, we agree with the trial court's analysis of the "takings" issue. If the law
recognizes that the public has a customary right to drive and park on Appellants'
property as an adjunct of its right to other recreational uses of that property, as
recognized in Tona-Rama, then no takings claim can be made out.

The problem should be obvious: if the circuit court finds that the public does not have a customary right to drive on these lots, then the County's actions in staking out parts of the Plaintiff's lots and letting people park and drive on them is a taking! Remember Loretto? One of the remaining "per se" takings claims - significant interference with the right to exclude?

The problem with this mistake (and you can understand it in context) is that it implies that there isn't a taking or recompense for the plaintiffs even if they win and the County refuses to stop. Very sad that in order to fix this giant hole in an otherwise smart and thoughtful decision, the landowners might have to ask the supreme court to review it.

Maybe the landowners should simply start putting out calthrops or other barriers to the cars and let the county sue them and move for a temporary injunction to stop them. Would be a VERY interesting case at that point regarding who's rights are initially recognized - the fee owner seised under the common law or the invading government, claiming on behalf of the public that the landowners "seisin" constitutes a seizure.

In any case - VERY important stuff and at least some glimmer that the rule of law and cooler heads sometimes prevail. Lenin may be weeping, but Locke and Blackstone smile.

2055 Wood Street, Suite 206, Sarasota, FL 34237      Phone (941) 681-8700

Hiring an attorney is an important decision that should not be based solely upon advertisements. Before you decide, ask and I will send you free written information about my qualifications and experience. Additionally, the comments, statements and articles contained herein are general in nature and should not be relied upon as a basis for any legal opinion, action or conclusion on the part of the reader with respect to any particular set of facts or circumstances, or to establish an attorney-client relationship between us.