Chmielewski v. City of St. Pete Beach

City cannot invite the public to make itself at home on private property

Cases > Property Rights > Chmielewski v. City of St. Pete Beach
Case Status: Won: Victory: Eleventh Circuit held that government cannot encourage public use of private property without paying for it.

The Chmielewski family owns beachfront property in the City of St. Pete Beach, Florida. The city owns an arts center inland and adjacent to the Chmielewski’s home. After the city built a trail and encouraged the public to traverse the Chmielewski’s land to access their private beach, the family sued the city for effecting a taking without just compensation and for violating the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition on unwarranted seizures. The trial court awarded the Chmielewski’s damages for the seizure and the loss in value to their private beach and their home as a result of the taking. The City appealed to the Eleventh Circuit and PLF filed a brief supporting the family’s property rights. On May 16, 2018, the Eleventh Circuit upheld the trial court’s ruling, agreeing that the government cannot encourage the public to use private property without triggering constitutional protections requiring just compensation.

 

Katherine and Chester Chmielewski bought their one-story beachfront home in the 1970s and raised their children there. They owned the property from the back of their home to the mean high water line. It was a peaceful place for the family. The only people who could access their beach were their neighbors. Then the City of St. Pete Beach opened the Suntan Arts Center inside the private subdivision, landward and across the street from the Chmielewskis’ home. The City put up signs directing the public to the beach and cleared a trail running from the arts center to the private beaches and a private sidewalk running next to the Chmielewskis’ home. The City rezoned the private beaches as a public park and held large public events at the arts center and private beach. As a result, the public began to treat the Chmielewskis’ property as a public space, using it not only for recreation, but also for weddings and parties, many of which involved alcohol. On top of that, some people started taking a shortcut from the arts center—walking right beside the Chmielewskis’ home and into their backyard to access the beach.

The Chmielewskis tried asking the public to leave their property, but they could not stem the tide. When the City refused to take responsibility and stop the public invasion that it had orchestrated, the family sued to regain the right to exclude the public from their private property. After a four-day trial, they won. But the City appealed to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals. PLF filed an amicus brief arguing that the City must pay for the taking of the Chmielewski’s property and that when the government causes the public to trespass into the area around the home, it violates the unreasonable seizure protections of the Fourth Amendment and must pay damages for violation of this constitutional right.  On May 16, 2018, the Eleventh Circuit upheld the trial court’s ruling, agreeing that the government cannot encourage the public to use private property without triggering constitutional protections requiring just compensation.

 

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What’s at stake?

  • The government cannot constitutionally invite the public to traverse – much less party on – privately owned beaches, without paying the owner just compensation for a taking.
  • When the government allows the public to invade privately-owned land surrounding a home, it violates the Fourth Amendment’s requirement that such invasions occur only with a warrant or other court order.

Case Timeline

Chmielewski v. City of St. Pete Beach Documents 4-12-17

April 12, 2017 Download

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