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One year after Sandy, N.J. towns accelerate dune building, despite holdouts

Harvey Cedars (population 344), a beach town perched on New Jersey's chain of barrier islands, managed to duck a head-on blow from Superstorm Sandy. The storm made lumber piles out of homes in neighboring boroughs, but only two homes here suffered significant damage.

Local officials credit a dune built about five years ago for blocking the powerful storm surge that Sandy sent smashing into the ribbon-thin island.

That stubby dune is now at the center of a major shift that stands to strengthen local officials against oceanfront homeowners who refuse to surrender thin strips of their beach property to the federal government for a much more ambitious program of dune construction.

The change came in July, when the state Supreme Court reversed a lower court ruling that granted $375,000 to Harvey Cedars homeowners Harvey and Phyllis Karan after the town took a section of their beach through eminent domain. The result was a 22-foot-tall dune that blocked the Karans' view of the ocean.

The unanimous higher court's decision this summer found that the value of a dune -- and its ability to protect homes against storm damage -- should be considered in disputes between towns and homeowners. The lower court only calculated the lost value of the Karans' depleted view.

"It's huge," Harvey Cedars Mayor Jonathan Oldham said of the court's decision, believing that it will help towns complete dune projects. "Now with this ruling, I think it's fair for both sides."

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A new settlement reached last month gave the Karans $1. That sent a message to towns scrambling to fortify their shorelines that substantial barriers might be worth more than a glimpse of the seascape. (One might argue that the ocean view by itself is worth more than $1, but it would be hard to get it up to the number the Ocean County Board of Taxation put on the property in Harvey Cedars before Sandy struck. That was $1.3 billion.)

The storm demonstrated how beachfront property is now in harm's way. Sandy damaged or destroyed more than 650,000 homes along the East Coast, and rising sea levels could give future storms more destructive power. Local officials up and down the Jersey Shore are using the court decision to increase pressure on homeowners to sign easements that give the Army Corps of Engineers control over strips of beach between oceanfront homes and the water.

After Sandy, many towns saw long-held antipathy ease toward dune-building projects. But about 1,000 New Jersey homeowners have not signed the documents, for fear of losing their views. Some are also concerned that boardwalks will be built. Others simply distrust government, local officials and homeowners say.

But greed, another reason for holding out, seems to have been washed away by the court decision.

"For someone at this point to hold out and expect a large payday -- that's not gonna happen," said Paul Shives, the business administrator of Toms River, which still needs 14 homeowners to sign the easements.

'Sandy changed everything'

The court decision comes as state and federal officials are planning to armor 44 miles of the New Jersey coastline with berms, walls, steel plate revetments and dunes, outlined by an Army Corps plan released last week. It is supposed to fill in the gap-toothed shore, where only portions are protected.

The work is scheduled to begin on some sections next month, like on a wall of steel sheets sunk about 40 feet into the beach in Brick Township. It's meant to prevent the island from being breached. But that revetment can't begin until the final plots of private property are secured by town officials. About half of the homeowners have signed easements, which are required by the Army Corps.

Mayor Stephen Acropolis said the court decision "got a lot of people off the couch" to sign the paperwork. For those who won't, the Town Council passed a measure this week to take the remaining land by legal force. And he's confident that Brick won't have to pay more than $300 to $700 to each homeowner, thanks to the court's ruling.

"When you're talking about protecting thousands of homes and hundreds of thousands of dollars if not more in tax revenue, that ... Supreme Court decision really helped move that process along," Acropolis said. "We're going to get the easements one way or the other."

Gov. Chris Christie (R) is also using the momentum of the court's decision to accelerate beach projects with federal funding of about $1 billion included in Congress' Disaster Relief Appropriations Act. He issued an executive order on the same day that the Karans received their $1 settlement. It requires state agencies to guide towns through the legal process of taking property from holdout homeowners.

"Sandy changed everything. It's time to do the right thing to not only protect your own property, but the property of all your neighbors," Christie said when announcing the executive order last month. "We can no longer be held back from completing these critical projects by a small number of owners who are selfishly concerned about their view while putting large swaths of homes and businesses around them at risk."

It's a 'land grab'

Officials in Mantoloking, a small affluent town that suffered heavy damage during Sandy, hope to use the state's help to establish the town as a pioneer in the changing way that private property is valued when it's obtained for beach projects. In light of the court decision, Mantoloking is developing a standardized way to measure the value of a homeowner's lost view with the benefits of a dune's protective qualities.

Chris Nelson, an adviser to Mantoloking's mayor and council, said he hopes that the calculations being developed with the state attorney general's office can be used by other towns along the coast. He left little doubt that the town considers the value of dunes to be high. Seven homeowners who have yet to sign easements in Mantoloking face eminent domain proceedings.

"If it was up to me, it would be a cent," Nelson said of those potential settlements, noting that many sections of land sought through easements continue to shrink through the forces of erosion. "The value of their property is now just sand."

That may be the case in Mantoloking, where the narrow island was breached from ocean to bay in several places during Superstorm Sandy. But in other areas of the island, homeowners who didn't suffer any damage are being asked to sign easements that rescind their control over sandy sections that have sometimes been handed down for generations.

Barrie Callahan is one of them. Her grandfather built the house in 1939 in Long Beach Township, and she says that it's never been damaged. She's refusing to sign the easement because she's upset by the idea that the government could control a section of sand that the family has used for 70 years. It's particularly perturbing to her that the easement prohibits the family from putting a bench on the dune, which she's been doing for years even though it's against local ordinances. She calls it a "land grab."

"To be able to sit on your own property, how can they say you can't sit on your own property? How can they do that?" said Callahan, 63, who lives in Pennsylvania except during the summer, which she spends on the Jersey Shore.

"When I was in a playpen, that's where I would be. I'd be in a playpen in the spot that they're telling me I can't utilize anymore," she added. "It's surreal. Truly it is. It's surreal."

Town officials have begun the process of taking her section of land, which she guesses might be 100 feet long and 60 feet wide, through eminent domain. She plans to fight it.

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