Another PLF beach win ensures federal protection for property rights

August 27, 2013 | By J. DAVID BREEMER

PLF continues to make headway in its twin goals of protecting property rights on the beach and in opening the federal courthouse doors to property owners seeking to defend their constitutionally protected property rights. The latest example of this reality is a new victory in the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in (another) case pitting the owners of a beach cottage against a land grab instigated by the Town of Nags Head. The case, Toloczko v. Nags Head, arises out of the same dispute as Sansotta v. Town of Nags Head, reported here, for which PLF received a favorable decision in July, 2013.

North Carolina courts have traditionally defined the landward boundary of the public beach as the mean high tide line. More inland areas, including the “dry beach,” are privately owned. Nags Head has adopted a different policy, one that defines all land located seaward of the vegetation line – including privately owned dry beach areas — as a “public trust” beach area. When storms moved the vegetation line landward of the Toloczkos’ cottage, the Town labeled the Toloczkos’ land as a “public trust area” and ordered their cottage removed without a hearing or just compensation because it had come to be on an alleged public beach and impeded public use of the area. When the Toloczkos’ balked at “removing” their home from their private lot, the Town went to North Carolina state court to get an order allowing the demolition of the cottage and levying fines on the owners for their refusal to abandon their property to the public.

The Toloczkos, being out-of-state citizens, decided to bring the case to federal court, as is their right under federal law. There, they challenged the Town’s actions on numerous state and federal grounds. The federal court ruled, however, that it would abstain from deciding the case in part because (in the court’s view), it raised highly sensitive state law issues pertaining to the definition of the boundary between private and public beachlands, and the court believed that federal review might unduly interfere with the state’s administration of this important area of law. The court also dismissed the Toloczkos’ takings claim as unripe under Williamson County’s “state litigation” rule, which (as this link explains) sometimes requires a property owner to seek and be denied compensation in state court before invoking federal judicial review of a Fifth Amendment claim for “just compensation.”

With PLF representation, the Tolockzkos then appealed to the Fourth Circuit. In the decision issued today, the Fourth Circuit reversed the district court’s decision in its entirety. The court held that the district court was required to hear the Toloczkos’ claims that the Town had unlawfully expanded the geographical scope of the public beach to take in their privately owned lot, and their related claim that the Town lacked authority under state law to enforce the public trust doctrine to seek removal of their cottage. The court explained that state law was clear that the Town in fact had no such power to use the public trust doctrine to destroy the Toloczkos’ use of their cottage.

The court further held that the district court was perfectly capable of deciding the Toloczkos’ federal due process and equal protection claims and was required to do that. Finally, the Fourth Circuit held that the Toloczkos’ takings claim was ripe in federal court despite the fact that they had not finished state court litigation because Williamson County‘s ripeness doctrine is merely a prudential rule that can be waived by the court for certain reasons. The court held that considerations of judicial economy and efficiency warranted such a waiver in this case. Therefore, it sent the case back to the district court for a ruling on the merits. Given the Fourth Circuit’s recognition that state law clearly bars the Town from enforcing the public trust doctrine, the Town cannot be looking forward to renewed federal litigation.

All in all, the Tolockzo case continues a trend of PLF cases that have steadily and seriously eroded procedural barriers to federal protection for property rights, thus putting property owners on a more equal footing with other classes of citizens when it comes to the right to invoke federal judicial protection for their constitutional rights. Moreover, like other PLF wins, such as in the Texas “rolling easement” cases, the new decision shows that local and state governments will be held accountable in a court of law if they try to redfine and expand the boundary of the public beach to take in private property, without just compensation.