The Supreme Court is wading into a new property rights dispute over who owns the sand the state of Florida dumped onto a stretch of beach to control erosion.
The justices are being asked to rule for the first time that a court decision can amount to a taking of property. The Constitution requires governments to pay "just compensation" when they take private property for public use.
Six homeowners on the Gulf of Mexico are challenging a Florida Supreme Court decision that ratified the designation of the new sand along nearly seven miles of storm-battered beach that stretches through the city of Destin and neighboring Walton County as public property, depriving them of the exclusive beach access they previously enjoyed.
They say the ruling "suddenly and dramatically changed" state law on beach property and caused their property values to decline. The homeowners want the state to pay them undetermined compensation for "taking" their property, which Florida law had long recognized as extending to the water.
The Obama administration and 26 states are backing Florida in urging the court to reject the challenge.
The state says it did not touch the homeowners' existing beach property and undertook the sand-pumping project to preserve the area's attractiveness to tourists, but also to protect the homes and the beach in front of them.
The homeowners still have private beachfront and can use the new stretch of sand paid for with taxpayer dollars, the state says.
Some of the homes are already near beaches with public access, meaning beachgoers could walk to a part of the sand that was previously deemed private.