By Madeline Urbish
Despite objections from some property owners and businesses, two major beach replenishment projects aimed at protecting against future storm damage are underway along New Jersey’s coastline. Following an executive order from Gov. Chris Christie, the state Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEPA) is working with the Attorney General’s Office to obtain easements for storm damage reduction projects along the shoreline, to build dunes on beaches that are being built or widened post-Sandy. The dunes provide the primary protection against damages caused by waves. These easement efforts have been met with mixed reactions across the state. Most communities have secured easements voluntarily. Some municipalities, however, have faced fervent opposition from small groups of property owners. As a result, the state and several townships have pursued condemnation proceedings, which involves using the government’s eminent domain authority to take possession of privately owned property for the purpose of the protection projects.
Homeowners in some shore communities have fought against shore protection projects, claiming they obstruct their views and reduce the values of their homes. Additionally, in the case of easements, property owners argue that the state and townships have not followed the proper eminent domain condemnation procedures. The N.J. Supreme Court recently overturned a ruling that awarded $375,000 to a Harvey Cedar Borough family who claimed their property values were diminished due to a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) project. In its opinion, the court argued the project’s protection benefits should be considered in the condemnation proceedings. The ruling was largely seen as a victory for the State and other communities hoping to pursue storm risk mitigation efforts.
Long Beach Island Case
Last year, Long Beach Island Council passed an ordinance declaring the state and township would take title to 50 oceanfront properties that were required for the Corps to complete replenishment work. Homeowners have subsequently filed suit, claiming the state and townships have not followed proper eminent domain condemnation procedures, and that the language of the deed changes is too vague, potentially leading to abuse. NJ State Superior Court Assignment Judge Vincent Grasso is set to decide on the case this spring. Judge Grasso ruled in favor of LBI homeowners in a similar case in February, claiming the township did not follow proper easement procedures. Judge Grasso is expected to rule in favor of homeowners again, and has already asked attorneys to agree on the wording for a court order reinstating ownership to the homeowners in the LBI case.
NJ Advance Media reported that homeowners in the recent LBI case never signed the deed changes prepared by the state and township, and that there was no voluntary agreement to accept money as compensation for loss in the transfer, despite claims to the contrary by the township. Additionally, the deeds are reportedly so vague that they entitle the state and township to entire properties, rather than the specific strips of land needed for replenishment. As of the beginning of May, 49 homeowners still have not granted easements for the replenishment work to continue on their property, according NJDEP Commissioner Bob Martin.
While some beachfront property owners will continue to fight the easements, two projects have already begun. They include a $57.6 million project to replenish beaches and dunes from the southern end of Ocean City to Sea Isle City in Cape May County, and a $38.2 million plan to construct berms and improve stormwater outflow between Loch Arbor and Deal in Monmouth County. NJDEP Commissioner Martin emphasized the importance of these projects in a news conference with local elected officials and Corps staff. “These two projects are critical toward our goal of constructing a statewide coastal protection system that will protect lives and property against future weather events such as Superstorm Sandy,” he stated.
The Cape May County project will involve the construction of 25 foot wide dunes along a nine-mile stretch of the coast. The Monmouth County project is broken into two phases, the first of which will widen 1.5 miles of beach in Loch Arbor, Allenhurst, and southern Deal. The second will extend the Elberon section of Long Branch by about two miles north.
According to Commissioner Martin, what began with 4,200 homeowners refusing to voluntarily accept easements has decreased to about 300 objections. As of April, all Monmouth County residents had voluntarily granted easements. Martin noted that the NJDEP will continue to pursue eminent domain for those still holding out on signing the easements. “These projects are too important to the overall state and to the overall communities.”
For more information, contact Madeline Urbish at firstname.lastname@example.org.