The sand dune that ruined Harvey and Phyllis Karan’s view of the ocean allowed their beachfront home to see another day when Superstorm Sandy’s surge crashed ashore. They still want the $375,000 a court awarded them for the blocked sunrise, though.
The Karans were never against the dune, their attorney says; rather, they deserve to be compensated for the decrease in property value to their $1.7 million home. They have company up and down the Jersey shore, where thousands of homes were saved from the October storm because they had robust dune systems protecting them from the pounding surf. Many places that didn’t suffered catastrophic damage.
Most coastal homeowners want the government to build dunes and widen beaches near their homes. Yet some still refuse to give permission for the projects to proceed, citing the loss of precious ocean views and fearing governments could build boardwalks or amusement piers near their homes – something officials stress they have no intention of doing. The prospect of honky-tonk entertainment districts like the one in Seaside Heights, once home to the hard-partying Snooki and company of the reality show “Jersey Shore,” is anathema to many in oceanfront neighborhoods where even smaller houses can go for several million dollars.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers won’t begin such projects without signed easements from all the affected oceanfront homeowners that give them permission to access the property for the work. Sandy has only intensified an effort that had been under way since at least 2008 to get the holdouts to sign.
But Gov. Chris Christie has little sympathy for lost views. “For the people that didn’t want a dune to block their view, they now no longer have a house to block the view from,” he said. “So, how about that choice?” He said he may seek to force the holdouts to submit the dune work, whether through eminent domain or some other governmental maneuver.
Sandy has indeed changed some minds. Mantoloking, which was nearly obliterated by Sandy, has signed easements or verbal commitments from 120 of the 128 oceanfront owners it needs to proceed with beach work. And many of the towns on Long Beach Island are closing in on their final pockets of holdouts, five years after first asking.
The Karans’ case, which will be heard by the New Jersey Supreme Court this year, is the most highly publicized.
Harvey Cedars, a narrow spit of sand in the northern part of the barrier Long Beach Island, has been battling with oceanfront homeowners for years over permission to construct protective sand dunes. The Karans refused to sign, and the borough used its powers of eminent domain to take the land it needed for the dune project.
It included a 22-foot berm that, while offering protection from the killer storm, also blocked the couple’s views of the water. That, they claim, reduced the value of the property by about $500,000, and they sued.
“What people are saying to the Karans is, ‘You should give your property to the government so that my property won’t be damaged,”‘ attorney Peter Wegener said. “But if you take it, pay just compensation for it. They want to take people’s property for nothing.”
Harvey Cedars had offered $300 to the couple, arguing the figure was fair, given the benefit of protection from storms that the dune project provided. A bill pending in the Legislature would force courts to consider the value of protection from storms that dune projects add to oceanfront homes when calculating damages for lost water views.
Without such a law, as state Sen. Bob Smith put it, “you’d have to be a total jabootz” not to hold out for a six-figure payday in such situations. He’s sponsoring a law to hold down court awards.
Renate Early owns a small restaurant four houses in from the beach in Harvey Cedars, near the Karans. She has little sympathy for lost views, given what Sandy did to the shore.
“If you don’t like the view on the first floor, go look out the second floor,” she said. “If we didn’t have the dunes, we would have no store. It would have floated away. I’m positive of that.”
Several of the private beach associations in hard-hit Toms River are refusing to sign easements, to the great frustration of Mayor Thomas Kelaher.
“They worry we might put a merry-go-round or a hot dog stand in their front yard,” he said, rolling his eyes. “People are so crazy not to sign it. I just can’t believe people are so obstinate.”
Ed and Patricia Newman live in the Holgate section of Long Beach Township, where dozens of homes were smashed to bits. But the home they have owned since 1999 lost only a bit of siding because of a decades-old dune system between them and the surf.
“We had a good dune with lots of pine trees and bayberry bushes anchoring it in place,” Patricia Newman said. “It saved our home.”
Mantoloking – like most of New Jersey’s hardest-hit areas, situated on a barrier island – suffered the state’s worst destruction; every last one of its 521 homes was damaged, and scores were simply washed off the map. The storm cut a channel between the ocean and Barnegat Bay, severing the town in two before repairs filled the breach.
The wealthy community has traditionally opposed beach replenishment and dune projects, although Sandy changed many minds and led borough officials to campaign for holdouts to sign their easements so beach protection can begin as soon as possible.
Police Chief Mark Wright is mystified as to why all the oceanfront owners haven’t signed yet.
“What more needs to happen?” he said.
Yet even after all the damage Sandy did, the fear of the public encroaching on heretofore private patches of the coast remains a powerful deterrent for some homeowners.
Michael Becker, who owns an advertising firm, owns a vacation home on the ocean in Mantoloking. He signed – but only reluctantly.
“I don’t mind that the government would own the land they place in front of ours,” he said. “All I ask for and didn’t get is a clause saying they won’t build a boardwalk or some other form of entertainment in front of our house. They say, no, they’re not going to add anything. But it doesn’t guarantee that the government can’t add a boardwalk in front of our house. We only want to protect against what the government can do.”
Mark Donohue, whose father owns an oceanfront house in Mantoloking, supports the beach protection project. But he said his father, too, is concerned about what the government might do once it gets the right to some of the beachfront land.
“This project should happen; it needs to happen,” he said. “The common good is a good thing, but you can’t just do away with private property rights.”
Clifford Lewis, an 89-year-old who has been sailing on Barnegat Bay since 1930s, had a large garden at his home in Mantoloking, known for its prize-winning chrysanthemums.
“I am now too old to rebuild the garden,” he said. “If the problem is not quickly resolved, beachfront people will lose significant value. To expect the state of New Jersey to assist us in a second debacle is ridiculous.”
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