Armando Rienzi may be the most unpopular person on Long Beach Island, N.J.
For years he has fought authorities’ attempts to rebuild the dunes in front of his $1.7 million oceanfront home to act as a buffer to Atlantic storms.
As the Ocean County resort recovers from Sandy, blame for the heavy damage the storm inflicted has fallen squarely on Rienzi and at least 100 other local owners who have thwarted the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ efforts by refusing to turn over a portion of their beachfronts.
Angry residents drive by Rienzi’s three-story Brant Beach house yelling, “Are you going to sign now?”
Township Mayor Joe Mancini has suggested neighbors think about suing the holdouts.
But while some have agreed post-Sandy to grant the government easements, Rienzi – a Bucks County resident who owns a food distribution company – is not giving in.
“Write this down: It’s not about money, it’s not about egos,” he told The Philadelphia Inquirer said last week. “This is definitely a constitutional, civil rights issue. What’s happening here is a tragedy. . . . Somebody needs to stand up and, unfortunately, that’s going to be me.”
The fight over rehabilitating the Jersey Shore’s dune system – long ago compromised by development – has been in and out of courtrooms for years. It pits the government’s mandate to protect seaside communities from nor’easters and hurricanes against the rights of property owners anxious to preserve their unobstructed view of the ocean.
On New Jersey’s barrier islands, towns whose dunes had been worked on by the Army Corps – such as Ocean City and Avalon – sustained less Sandy damage, according to officials. With many dunes now compromised, politicians from Gov. Christie down are pushing to have them bolstered quickly, setting up a legal showdown that could determine the fate of the Shore for generations.
Of the 98 miles of New Jersey coastline that are developed, less than half have seen dune rehabilitation projects, according to the Army Corps.
In some cases, Congress hasn’t appropriated funds. State, local, and federal agencies already have spent $700 million on such projects in the state since 1986.
But officials are butting up against predominantly wealthy residents with the courts on their side.
For the Army Corps to create a dune, typically 22 feet high, it requires permission from the homeowner on whose land it will be built. Property lines generally extend to the high-tide mark.
How officials would get around the legal roadblock is unclear.
Christie and Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) have said eminent domain is an option.
That could come at a huge cost. In March, a state appellate court upheld a $375,000 judgment compensating a Long Beach Island couple for their lost view after the borough of Harvey Cedars seized a portion of their property to build dunes.
Multiply that by all the homes that line the coastline and the cost to municipalities would be prohibitive.
Paula A. Franzese, a law professor at Seton Hall University who has followed the issue, said that while government’s right to take land for shore protection is well-established, the question of how to acquire large blocks of high-priced property for the public good remains unanswered.
In California, efforts to use a fixed scale to set government compensation to coastal homeowners forced off their land by mudslides and other natural disasters have met with lawsuits by those who said the rate does not reflect market value.
“It may well be that this storm pushes the court to finally reassess the question of valuation,” Franzese said. “You have to add in the environmental stakes. If the dunes are not built to adequately repel the next surge, that will cause immense harm, economically and environmentally, for the homeowners and the greater populace.”
For now, the towns are exploring their options. One possibility would be to take eminent-domain cases to federal court in hopes the high judgments awarded homeowners come down. Officials are watching closely to see what happens when the Harvey Cedars case goes to the state Supreme Court.
On Wednesday, Christie floated the possibility of the state’s taking over the land-acquisition process from municipalities, many of which barely have funds to cover litigation, let alone the settlements.
“I’m listening. I’m hoping the governor has a better plan than what we have in place now,” said Mancini, the township mayor.
Thanks to Sandy, some homeowners have given up the fight, said Larry Schapiro, an Ocean County attorney who represents Shore towns in easement cases.
“I don’t think property owners want to go to a condemnation case right now,” he said. “A jury in Ocean County isn’t going to be sympathetic.”
While towns typically portray those who have denied easements as selfish and out for financial gain, the homeowners – many of whom asked not to be named by The Inquirer for fear of retribution by neighbors – said they had tried to reach a compromise with authorities.
Attorney Kenneth Porro, who represents some holdouts on Long Beach Island, said more would sign off on easements if the Corps of Engineers agreed to make the dunes no higher than the first floor of a house. The easements also should be temporary, he said.
“They make life so difficult,” he said of authorities. “Government has to turn on square corners. It’s not helping anyone.”
The Army Corps maintains the dunes after their construction, and temporary easements would require officials to seek homeowners’ permissions again and again.
As Rienzi worked to get his Shore home back in order last week, he showed off photos of the dunes he had created himself – he said the township had ordered him to do so as a result of the easement dispute – and pointed at the relatively untouched homes behind him as proof they had worked.
“Our story isn’t getting out there,” he said. “I’ve been coming here for 30 years. I love this island.”
With many residents still reeling and businesses in parts of the island mostly shuttered, Rienzi’s defense was falling on deaf ears.
At a pizzeria in the Ship Bottom section, a power-ski mechanic who was displaced by the storm said he was fed up with stubborn property owners, most of whom live on the island part time.
“You mean the morons who won’t sign the easements?” said Douglas K. Campbell, 47, who was living in Surf City before Sandy.
“It’s these guys who say, ‘I’m a lawyer,’ ‘I’m a doctor,’ ‘You can’t tell me what I’m going to do. I want to walk outside and see the ocean.’
“Just go to the top deck,” Campbell said. “What’s the problem?”