State sovereignty lands are lands below the ordinary high water mark of navigable waterways. The title to sovereignty lands passed to the state – to be held in trust for the use by the people – from the federal government when Florida attained statehood in 1845. At that time, most of the rest of the land in Florida was owned by the federal government.
In 1850 the federal government granted to the state about 20 million acres of swamp and overflow lands, which were intended to be sold into private ownership. The land was surveyed to delineate swamp and overflow lands from state sovereignty lands and by 1918 the state had conveyed more than 19 million acres of swamp and overflow lands to private owners.
Property rights to the swamp and overflow lands the state had deeded seemed secure until the 1970s, when the state began claiming that some of the lands that had been conveyed were incorrectly classified. They were deemed state sovereignty lands and the state wanted to take back title to those lands.
Florida courts consistently ruled that even if lands were classified and conveyed in error, a landowner with a deed to property issued by the state retained the legal right to the property. The Florida Supreme Court reversed itself on this issue in 1986 and since then, the state has been pursuing sovereignty land claims more aggressively.
Cases are pursued by the state individually, and the state has made no overall determination about what land it might attempt to reaquire as state sovereignty lands in the future. According to the state’s own estimates, as much as three million acres owned by 140,000 individual landowners might eventually fall under state sovereignty land claims.