NJ Dune Project on Hold as Town Waits for Easements

By Tracey Samuelson | NewsWorks.org
|  Tuesday, Aug 20, 2013  |  Updated 9:05 AM EDT
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NJ Dune Project on Hold

Tracey Samuelson | NewsWorks.org

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Pat Suriani wants dunes built on the beach in front her home in Ortley Beach. The damage from Superstorm Sandy is an ever-present reminder of why they're needed. As she stands at the end of a street leading to the water, she counts eight houses that need to be demolished.

"By the time they take down all the houses, only two will be standing," said Suriani.

This past winter, Suriani and other members of the Surf Cottages Homeowners Association spent roughly $30,000 building their own temporary dunes. With the help of volunteers, members of the association piled sand on top of old Christmas trees, planted them with grass and lined the new dunes with protective fencing.

"That was the only way we could protect ourselves," said Suriani.

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"The better the dunes, the less the damage," agrees Tom Kelaher, the mayor of Toms River, which includes Ortley Beach. "I don't think anyone can deny that."

The town wants this association — and all its beachfront homeowners — to have dunes. The state of New Jersey wants the dunes to run the entire length of the shore. And there's money set aside from the federal government to fund construction of dunes by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Yet despite this widespread enthusiasm for dunes as a mechanism for protecting shore communities from future storms, the Army Corps is not yet working on new dunes in the wake of Sandy. (Crews are rebuilding some damage to existing dunes and beaches.)

The Army Corps won't start construction until the town has the consent of all its oceanfront property owners, as the dunes need to be built on privately-owned land. This has been a stumbling block in many shore communities, including Toms River, where homeowners along roughly 30 percent of the town's coastline haven't signed agreements (called easements) that would allow use of their land.

The Surf Cottages Homeowners Association has not signed the easement.
"We just want, we want to preserve what's ours," said Suriani, explaining her hesitation to sign.

"People have been here 50 [or] 60 years, maybe some of them more."

All along the shore, these so-called "holdouts" have varying reasons for not offering their permission. Some homeowners don't want to give up use of their land or want to be compensated for it. Others feel burned by the handful of towns that have posted the names of holdouts online, like a public shaming. Recently, a grocery in Surf City store printed a list of their local holdouts on signs saying those homeowners aren't welcome to shop in the store until they sign.

Many people think the holdouts' reluctance is all about making sure the dunes don't block water views. While that may be true of some owners, Suriani and her neighbors think that argument is an oversimplification, designed to make holdouts look selfish. In fact, many members of the association don't have water views. They're mainly worried that the language of the easement might require them to open their private beach to the general public.

Mayor Kelaher says those fears are unfounded.

"That's all bogus," he said. "The easement we're looking for, you could call it a license, just to go on their property and build [the dunes]."

He's growing impatient with conversations about what the easements will or won't allow.

"I don't like to sound like a tough guy, but they're either going to sign it or we're going to do eminent domain and that's all there is to it," he said.

The New Jersey Supreme Court issued a decision late last month that will make using eminent domain to build these dunes much less expensive than it might have previously been. Before, the precedent for lost water views caused by the dunes for an oceanfront home was $375,000. The court threw out that decision, which made eminent domain a more attractive option for shore towns looking to move forward with dune construction.

"We just couldn't take the chance that we could be hit with that type of award for every property that we needed the easements for," said Kelaher.

Last week, Toms River began mailing out a final notice urging homeowners and associations to sign easements before the township begins the eminent domain process.


This story was reported through a news coverage partnership between NBC10.com and NewsWorks.org

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