Waterfront property owners have appealed a federal judge’s ruling in a dispute about whether they should receive compensation after Walton County temporarily closed beaches early in the COVID-19 pandemic. The appeal was filed this week at the Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals after U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle ruled against the property owners in October. The lawsuit focuses on people who were unable to use areas of the beaches that they owned during the spring 2020 closure, rather than on beaches being closed to the general public. Attorneys for the property owners argue that the county’s decision to close the privately owned parts of the beaches resulted in an unconstitutional “taking” of property. Under Florida law, privately owned beach property generally extends to a point known as the mean high-water line. Attorneys for the plaintiffs also have cited property owners’ “littoral” rights, which provide access to the water. But Hinkle, in a 19-page decision, wrote that the plaintiffs were still able to use much of their property and that the county commission was using its “police power in a public-health emergency” when it closed the beaches. “The bottom line is this. The Board of County Commissioners faced an escalating pandemic that posed an enormous threat to public health,” Hinkle wrote. “There was no way to know at that time how many people would die or become gravely ill and how best to minimize the number. Decisive action seemed appropriate. In closing the beaches, the county exhibited no animus toward these plaintiffs or anyone else. Instead, the commissioners exercised their best judgment, based on the limited knowledge available at the time, on how to preserve life and health.”

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