With the anniversary of Superstorm Sandy approaching, New Jersey took two big steps Wednesday toward protecting its still-vulnerable coastline from future storms.
The state announced the settlement _ for $1 _ of a lengthy legal dispute between a shore town and an elderly couple who complained that a protective sand dune blocked their ocean views.
Moments later, Gov. Chris Christie directed the state to take legal action against about 1,000 holdouts whose refusal to sign easements giving government permission to carry out beach protection projects is blocking the crucially needed work.
The 1-2 punch highlighted just how important New Jersey considers protective sand dunes to be along the coast _ and how vulnerable many areas remain nearly a year after the devastating Oct. 29 storm. About 360,000 New Jersey homes and businesses were damaged or destroyed in the storm.
"It is a proven fact that having dunes along our coastline makes everyone safer, and today I'm acting to move the building process forward,'' Christie said. "As we rebuild from Superstorm Sandy, we need to make sure we are stronger, more resilient and prepared for future storms, and dunes are a major component of this process.''
Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak estimated the number of holdouts at about 1,000.
The couple involved in the legal dispute, Harvey and Phyllis Karan, went to court after they rejected Harvey Cedars' offer of $300 in compensation for their lost views. A jury awarded them $375,000, but the state Supreme Court overturned the award in July, ruling that the jury should also have been allowed to consider the protective benefits of the dune, and not just how it cut down on the couple's ocean views.
The couple's lawyer did not immediately return a call seeking comment on their change of heart.
That issue remains in play for small pockets of property owners along the state's 127-mile coastline, who are refusing to sign easements giving the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers permission to use small swaths of their land to build dunes and widen beaches. Some of these owners fear that signing the easements could give government the right to build boardwalks, bathrooms or amusement rides near their homes _ something the state and local governments say they have no intention of doing.
"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,'' Christie said.
Mantoloking still needs five or six easements from the more than 120 it sought in order to build protective dunes along its coast, and decided to go to court on its own this year without waiting for the governor to act. It was the hardest-hit New Jersey community by the storm, with virtually all of its 521 homes either damaged or destroyed.
"This is great news for the entire state, and reinforces our decision to move forward and legally take the five to six easements that remain outstanding,'' said borough spokesman Chris Nelson. He said Mantoloking will file legal action against its holdout property owners soon.
Harvey Cedars Mayor Jonathan Oldham said he expected the settlement after the Supreme Court backed his legal position in the dune case.
"I've lived my entire life here on the island,'' he said. "This protective project is fundamental to us being here; it's not an option. The Karans got a big benefit from the dune. And the storm proved that we would have looked like Holgate and Mantoloking if we didn't have the dunes,'' he said, referring to two shore communities devastated by the storm.
Aside from the $1 compensation paid to the Karans for the borough's easement, the borough agreed to reimburse their lawyers' $24,260 out-of-pocket litigation costs, but did not pay their legal fees in the case.
Christie's executive order directs acting Attorney General John Hoffman to immediately coordinate legal action to acquire the necessary easements to build dunes. It also created the Office of Flood Hazard Risk Reduction Measures within the state Department of Environmental Protection to coordinate the efforts to acquire the necessary property to build dunes.