Molly and Tom Beyer purchased an island in the Florida Keys in 1970 for $70,000 with the intention that it would serve as a legacy for their children. But despite zoning that allowed development of the property, local officials have effectively expropriated the island from the couple by imposing a series of increasingly restrictive land use regulations.
The Beyers are now seeking relief from Florida’s supreme court.
At first, the Beyers were only allowed to develop one home per acre. A rule change then required that each home be constructed on 10 acres. Finally, to stem development of the property by the Beyers, officials designated the island -- a vacant property -- as a sanctuary for nesting birds and thus effectively banning all development in the future. The island was originally within the jurisdiction of Monroe County and was zoned for one home per acre.
“This case is about an uncompensated property grab — literally, an unconstitutional island grab,” said Mark Miller, managing attorney for the Pacific Legal Foundation’s Florida-based Atlantic Center. “The island has been seized from the Beyers in all but name,” he said.
Both Molly and Tom Beyer are now deceased, having fought for twenty years to reclaim the use of their property. Their children have seen picked up the gauntlet left behind by their parents. They have taken recourse to obtaining council from a nonprofit law firm, the Pacific Legal Foundation to argue their case in the court. According to PLF, the City of Marathon has robbed the family of constitutional property rights and deprived it of their inheritance. On the “rookery,” they are not allowed to build a home or other property. According to a PLF statement, the “city is violating the Constitution by refusing to pay the family a meaningful form of “just compensation,” as the Fifth Amendment’s Takings Clause demands when government seizes private property or prohibits any economically beneficial use of it.”
PLF has filed a brief with the Florida Supreme Court on behalf of Tom, Hugh, and Teresa Beyer. They inherited Bamboo Key, from their late parents. Their lawyers are contesting a ruling by the Third District Court of Appeal that found in favor of the City of Marathon. “The court held that the city satisfied its compensation obligations by offering some ‘points’ that in theory could allow possible development somewhere else. Judge Frank Shepherd, who dissented from the court’s decision not to rehear the case en banc, declared that this scheme is too speculative and the family is being unlawfully forced ‘to suffer significant economic injuries,’” according to PLF.
PLF attornery Miller said of the case, “The island has been seized from the Beyers in all but name. Although the city is oh-so-generously allowing the family to continue paying taxes on their island property, and to retain all the liabilities that come with property ownership, bureaucrats have commandeered the actual use of it for purposes of their own choosing. The Beyers aren’t allowed to do anything but camp on the island, and they haven’t been offered a dime in reimbursement.” Miller said that PLF is willing to take the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary. PLF has won numerous cases in the federal Supreme Court.
PLF argues that the property was seized without just compensation. “The city’s excuse for not compensating the Beyers is, literally, ‘for the birds.’ So-called development points or credits are not a tangible payment. At best, they amount to guesswork about possible development at some undetermined time in some unidentified place. At worst, they amount to peanuts in a shell game. Either way, the Constitution’s protections for property owners are being evaded, not obeyed.”
Monroe County never did take possession of Bamboo Key but the Beyers were prohibited from building anything. The only use they could make of it as a campsite. In 1999, the City of Marathon was incorporated and asserted jurisdiction over the island. The city reasserted the county’s restrictions.
“The principles at stake in this case are important for all property owners, large or small, wherever they live,” said Miller. “To paraphrase a famous poet, no property owner is an island to himself. When property rights are eroded for some landowners, they are weakened for the rest of us as well. This case asks the crucial question: When government takes property, is real restitution required or can officials get by with offering an empty substitute?”
The case is entitled, Ganson v. City of Marathon. The Pacific Legal Foundation is a donor-supported watchdog organization that litigates nationwide for limited government, property rights, and a balanced approach to environmental regulations. Its clients are represented without compensation.