Nies v. Town of Emerald Isle

Supreme Court asked to reverse North Carolina’s massive beach land grab

Cases > Property Rights > Nies v. Town of Emerald Isle
Active: Supreme Court declined to review the case.
Case Court: U.S. Supreme Court

The Town of Emerald Isle, North Carolina, passed ordinances allowing the general public and town officials to use the Nies family’s private beach land, without compensating them. State courts upheld these ordinances because they believed a 1998 state law redefined all private dry sand beaches from private land into a “public trust” area open for public driving and access. PLF, representing the landowners, argued that both the ordinance and the state law effected an unconstitutional taking by remaking the entire coastline of separately divided and owned dry beach parcels into a uniform public trust beach which the public and the government can use and drive on without owner consent or compensation. With the state courts unwilling to compensate the property owners, PLF is seeking review in the U.S. Supreme Court.

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 therefore 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 is asking the 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 is not in the Nieses’ title and which has never before applied to private areas.

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What’s at stake?

  • The Constitution does not permit states to use legislation to convert massive areas of private beach land into a public beach area, without just compensation.
  • Absent Supreme Court review, North Carolina will have accomplished one of the most far-reaching legislative takings of coastal property in American history.

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