Gordon and Molly Beyer, at right, vacationing with family and friends in 1996.
Gordon and Molly Beyer, at right, vacationing with family and friends in 1996. (handout)

Rookery.

Merriam-Webster defines the word as “a breeding ground or haunt especially of gregarious birds.”

Many people who enjoy the sounds of nature might like the idea of birds alighting in their trees and filling the air with melody. But how many people would willingly surrender the use of their property so it could serve as a government-designated rookery — without a penny in compensation?

The late Gordon and Molly Beyer were victims of precisely this injustice. Decades ago, they purchased Bamboo Key, a 9-acre island in the Florida Keys off the city of Marathon, with a dream of building a home for retirement and where their family could gather for generations to come.

When they bought the island, the existing zoning regulations permitted their homebuilding plan. But before long, local officials yanked the rug out from under them. A series of tight land-use restrictions were enacted, culminating in a ban on any and all construction — so that the island could serve as a bird rookery.

Government officials were generous enough to let the Beyers keep title to their property — and keep paying taxes on it. But the family was denied all use of it — other than as a site for temporary camping.

In other words, they were forced to become unpaid proprietors of a bird sanctuary.

Gordon and Molly responded to this island grab by launching litigation for their property rights. At first, the lawsuit targeted Monroe County, which had declared that the Beyers had to yield their property to the birds. Today, the lawsuit continues against the city of Marathon, which took jurisdiction over the island when the city incorporated.

Two decades have passed, and the Beyers’ grown children are left to continue the legal fight, which — tragically — outlived both Gordon and Molly. Recently, the long, drawn-out struggle reached a climactic juncture, with the family asking the Florida Supreme Court to take their case.

They’re represented, free of charge, by Pacific Legal Foundation, a national watchdog for property rights. This is fitting because the issues have impacts for property owners everywhere.

Above all else, the case asks: Can bureaucrats commandeer your property for whatever cause they consider worthy — and refuse to pay a dime in restitution?

One might think that’s a settled question. The Fifth Amendment is straightforward: If government takes your property for public use (like a bird rookery), you are owed just compensation.

But local regulators came up with a scheme to evade that requirement, and if they’re successful against the Beyers, everyone’s property rights will be less secure. Instead of paying the Beyers hard cash, officials offered some development points — government-speak for the possibility of perhaps being able to develop something else, in some other place, at some other time.

Our Founding Fathers would hardly have considered speculative promises as fulfilling the Constitution’s mandate for solid reimbursement.

Nevertheless, the Third District Court of Appeal was able to rationalize what was done and give the government ploy a seal of approval. One jurist, however, saw more clearly. Dissenting from a decision to not rehear the case, Judge Frank Shepherd blasted the city’s counterfeit compensation scheme as “for the birds.”

In appealing to Florida’s Supreme Court, Gordon and Molly’s offspring are honoring their parents’ memory. As Tom Beyer, their son, said: “Our father spent so much time thinking about building a house on Bamboo Key. It was sad that by the time he retired and had the time to devote to the project, the government had taken away his ability to develop it. I know that he wanted us to be able to develop the island and … to see the injustice put right.”

To paraphrase a famous poet, no property owner is an island. The Beyers’ case has significance far beyond the Florida Keys. Indeed, it could ultimately find its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Government can’t be allowed to “rook” — i.e. rip off — property owners, no matter how supposedly noble the purpose: not even for a rookery.

The rip-off of the Beyers — and the court rulings permitting it — cannot be allowed to stand.