The recent Deepwater Horizon disaster has focused attention on the value and importance of beaches to local economies, the quality of life, and as wildlife habitat. It has also ignited a discussion on whether to permanently ban oil drilling in Florida waters. Florida statutory laws prohibit nearshore drilling (within 10 miles on the Gulf coast and within 3 miles on the Atlantic coast), but state laws can easily be changed. Indeed, the Florida legislature had been working diligently to do away with this statutory ban and only recently abandoned this effort as the Deepwater Horizon continued to gush crude. Consequently, many policy makers and Floridians have been pushing for a more permanent “constitutional ban” that could only be changed by the voters and could not be overturned by the pro-drilling Florida legislature. Sea Turtle Conservancy (STC) has steadfastly opposed the legislature’s efforts to allow drilling while also advocating for a more permanent constitutional ban.
In early July, Governor Charlie Crist called for a legislative special session for the purpose of placing a constitutional amendment to ban drilling onto the November ballot. In an effort to gauge public support and hopefully convince legislators to support the governor, STC and four other Florida conservation groups conducted a survey of likely Florida voters. The survey results, released on July 19, just before the Governor’s special session, found that a majority of Floridians now oppose drilling in Florida’s near shore waters and a whopping 71% of Florida voters would like the opportunity to vote on a constitutional ban. A press conference was held in Tallahassee announcing the poll’s results.
The Special Session was called to order on July 20th. It lasted just 29 minutes, with the legislature ignoring the Governor’s efforts by adjourning without any hearings or votes on placing a constitutional ban on the ballot. Several conservation groups are now initiating a statewide citizen petition drive to place the constitutional amendment on the ballot. The STC will be strongly supporting this effort.
In other beach related news, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling on June 17 upholding Florida’s beach restoration program. This very complicated case was initiated in 2004 when some beachfront property owners in the Florida Panhandle sued to stop the state from rebuilding their eroded beaches. When a “critically eroded” Florida beach is rebuilt, the new sand is considered to be public property. Since this new sand is placed between the old high tide line and the water, the beach front property owner’s property no longer touches the water and the new public sand effectively moves the high tide line further seaward. In a very simplified summation: property owners sued claiming the renourishment project resulted in a taking without compensation of their “riparian” rights to have their land touch the water. The case was appealed to the Florida Supreme Court in 2007 and eventually went to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court ruled that the state’s beach nourishment program did not constitute a taking of private property without just compensation in violation of the U.S. Constitution. Had the property owners prevailed, Floridians would have had to pay first for the sand and then also for the right to place sand on a beach to protect the upland development. This could have effectively killed the state’s beach restoration program.
STC is involved in a myriad of issues addressing the long-term protection of Florida’s beaches. Beach management and protection is very complicated and attempts to balance environmental needs, public recreation, tourism, and protection of upland property. It is our mission to ensure the long term protection and health of Florida’s sea turtle nesting beaches and associated nearshore marine habitats.