Emerald Isle is a barrier island on North Carolina’s Atlantic shore. Gregory and Diane Nies own a residential, beachfront lot that extends seaward to the high tide mark, including the dry sand beach area in front of their home. The Town of Emerald Isle enacted an ordinance that deemed a 20-foot ribbon of their dry sand beach area to be an “unimpeded Town vehicle lane” for police cars, ATV’s, garbage trucks and the like. It also passed an ordinance that allows the public to purchase permits to drive and park on all private dry sand areas.
The result is that the Town converted the Nieses’ dry sand property into a Town expressway and a parking lot and dirt road for the public, without consent and without paying them anything. The Nieses sued the Town, contending it had taken their property, particularly their right to control or deny access to it, in violation of the North Carolina and United States constitutions.
The Town relied on the “public trust” doctrine, codified in a state statute, to reclassify the Nieses’ private dry land as a public beach, even though the doctrine had never previously extended beyond the state-owned wet beach areas of the coastline. The state courts accepted this radical expansion of the public trust doctrine, leaving the landowners with significantly reduced property and no compensation.
PLF asked the U.S. Supreme Court to take the case to decide whether governments can escape the constitutional duty to pay compensation for opening up beachfront land to unwanted public and government access by relying on a novel “public trust doctrine” easement that was not in the Nieses’ title and which was never before applied to private areas. The Supreme Court asked to reverse North Carolina’s massive beach land grab.
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