This week — as vast slicks of oil fowled beaches from Louisiana to Florida — the U.S. Supreme Court held against beachfront property owners.  The fight involved the question of who owns seven miles of sand touching the Gulf of Mexico in the Florida Panhandle.

The startling thing?  Four Justices voted to deem property rulings by state courts of last resort subject to "takings" review under the fifth amendment to the U.S. Constitution.  Stop the Beach Renourishment, Inc. v. Florida Dept. of Environmental Protection, No. 08-1151 (U.S. June 17, 2010).

The case arose from a Sunshine State law that allowed towns and counties to convert ocean into beach.  The City of Destin and County of Walton — both now under siege from Deepwater Horizon's wandering petroleum — got permits under the law to restore shoreline that storms had eaten away.  They used dredges to harvest sand offshore and then placed it in water along seven miles of beach, turning wet to dry. 

People who owned beachfront land didn't like the project because it cut their tracts off from direct contact with water.  They also claimed that the "accretion" seaward changed the boundary between public and private property, from the mean high-tide mark, which might vary over time, to a new "erosion-control" line, which might never change.

All the voting justices (Justice Stevens didn't participate in the case) agreed that neither the accretion nor the conceptual change in what defined the public-private boundary resulted in an unconstitutional taking of property.  But Their Honors split half and half on a key idea — whether a judicial ruling that alters property rights can count as a "taking" under the fifth amendment

Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia (author), Alito, and Thomas said yes; Justices Kennedy (author) and Sotomayor said maybe but not in this case; and Justices Breyer (author) and Ginsburg said probably no.

NYT editorial here.

No word yet on who owns the oil once it washes up on the beaches.  But you can bet the complaining landowners don't mind not having to clean it up.