Doin’ the Dunes: What Will They Cost?

Posted on June 13, 2013 by Joseph Manko

How appropriate was the name “Sandy”, which hit the New Jersey shore, leaving in its wake a $30 billion cleanup/rebuild price tag.  Climate change experts agree that such catastrophic storms will continue to occur in the future and that adaptation is essential to confront repetitions.

So it is in New Jersey where all 3 branches of government have suggested ways in which to do so.  First, Governor Christie has gone on record as being “not in favor of using eminent domain to kick people out of their homes”.  He therefore proposes to spend $300 million to acquire key beach homes on the Ocean and Monmouth County shorelines.

Second, and most interesting to environmental and land use attorneys, is the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ (Corps) pursuit of acquiring easements along the New Jersey shore lines on which to construct and maintain 2-story high sand dunes.  This program, begun in 2003 and contemplated to last 50 years, is focused on 14 miles of New Jersey’s barrier islands at an estimated cost of $144 million. (The Corps’ estimate does not recognize the issues raised here.)  The wild card in the Corps’ approach is how much needs to be paid in compensation for the property owners’ easement, including a partial loss of ocean view.  This is the issue moving through the New Jersey legislature and, more importantly, its courts. In the most recent case, Borough of Harvey Cedars v. Harvey Karan and Phyllis Karan, Judge E. David Millard, the lower court judge, was faced with the question whether the compensation award for an easement on 1/3 of the Karans’ beachfront property, on which the Corps built a 22 foot high sand dune which partially obstructed their ocean view, should be reduced by the resultant benefit of protection from future storms provided by the dunes – or whether the general benefit to others, and the entire state of New Jersey, made such a “special benefit” to the Karans not recognizable under existing New Jersey case law.   Finding such “special benefit” not consistent with prior law and extremely speculative to calculate, Judge Millard  instructed the jury not to make any such reduction in the $375,000 award.  The New Jersey Superior Court Appellate Division affirmed the result, Borough of Harvey Cedars v. Harvey Karan and Phyllis Karan, 45 A.3d 983 (2012) .  The New Jersey Supreme Court granted certification to the Borough and heard two hours of argument on May 20, 2013.

Third, while all this was going on, a bill was introduced in the New Jersey Senate in March 2013 which, if enacted, would allow the Court to consider the “special benefit” which dunes would afford to the affected homeowners.  Whether the bill ever becomes law, as well as questions as to its constitutionality and its effect on New Jersey case law would certainly emerge – as will be the question as to whether the New Jersey Supreme Court will take notice of the bill in rendering its decision.

Issues such as these will clearly impact the cost of climate change adaption, especially so with the threat of the anticipated rising of sea levels and recurring coastal storms to island properties.  Stay tuned.