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Supreme Court ruling clears way for Manatee beach restoration (with photo gallery)

MANATEE — With Manatee County’s beach restoration project set to start early next year, Thursday’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling was good news.

“This decision goes to the very heart of Florida’s beach restoration projects,” said Charlie Hunsicker, director of the county natural resources department, “which is not only the protection of the public, but the protection of the beach resources.”

Hunsicker, who is the lead agent for the county’s project, said pumping sand onto the shores of Anna Maria Island not only protects property values, it creates conditions for sea turtle nesting and provides other environmental benefits.

In a Walton County case, the Supreme Court ruled Thursday that local governments can undertake beach-widening projects without paying beachfront property owners who lose exclusive access to the water.

The court, by an 8-0 vote, rejected a challenge by six homeowners in the Panhandle county who argued that the beach restoration project changed their oceanfront property into oceanview. Justice John Paul Stevens took no part in the case.

Dawn Moliterno, executive director of Beaches of South Walton, the county’s tourist development council, said she was glad to see the issue resolved after six years of court battles.

“The Supreme Court ruling shows we did things the right way,” Moliterno said. “We can now put this behind us.”

Debbie Flack, president of the Florida Shore and Beach Preservation Association, said the ruling shows that the state can continue to proceed as it has for the last 50 years.

The organization of local governments filed a friend of the court brief in the case, arguing the importance of beach restoration for storm protection and economic development.

Manatee County is gearing up for major five-year beach restoration project set to start in January.

The three-phase project will begin with pumping about 240,000 cubic yards onto a portion of the beach in Anna Maria that was washed away during the 2004 and 2005 hurricane seasons.

In 2012, the northernmost portion of the beach along the Gulf of Mexico will be restored, and the largest part of the project, from Holmes Beach’s northern city limits to Coquina Beach, will be done in 2015.

Just as the plaintiffs in the U.S. Supreme Court case, several beachfront property owners in Anna Maria in the past were opposed to beach restoration in the first two projects because they feared it would open the beach to public use.

Anna Maria Mayor Fran Barford said the high court ruling was a win-win for everyone.

“When you think about home protection and losing property,” Barford said, “there’s a hard lesson for not agreeing to beach restoration.”