Gov. Chris Christie's plan to erect protective sand dunes along New Jersey's coastline got a big boost from a judge who ruled the state Department of Environmental Protection has the legal right to seize strips of oceanfront land from private owners for the project.
In a decision issued Monday but made public Wednesday, Superior Court Marlene Lynch Ford ruled against most of the 28 oceanfront property owners in Ocean County who were trying to block the project. They represented the first batch of cases challenging the project in that area, which sustained New Jersey's worst damage from Superstorm Sandy in 2012. Many other cases challenging the project around the state remain in court.
The judge ruled the department can take property for the storm protection project and had negotiated properly with the owners, even in offering low-ball compensation for the land. She refused to dismiss the condemnation cases.
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"The right of the DEP to acquire property by condemnation to support shore protection projects and public access has long been recognized in this jurisdiction," Ford wrote in her decision. "This court concludes that the DEP is authorized under the broad delegation of authority to protect the fragile coastal system to take property for public beach purposes and for shore protection purposes."
Jack Buonocore, an attorney for some of the land owners, said they will consider whether to appeal the decision. His firm also represents other property owners challenging the dune project whose cases are pending.
"We remain convinced that NJDEP is using this project as a smokescreen to accomplish an unlawful land grab," Buonocore said. "These cases present a test of every citizen's liberty and property rights, and deserve review at the appellate level."
In 2013, Christie began pushing for a protective sand dune project along the state's 127-mile coast, nearly a year after Superstorm Sandy devastated parts of the Jersey shore. Many oceanfront residents signed easements for free or for a nominal fee, allowing the work to be done.
But others have vociferously opposed the plan and sued the state to block it, including the city of Margate, just south of Atlantic City, and home and private beach owners in Point Pleasant Beach, Bay Head, Mantoloking, Ocean City, and on Long Beach Island. They object to the government taking private property for public purposes, claim the state lacks authority to seize the land, and complain that the state has offered them virtually nothing for it.
The state cites a Supreme Court decision determining that the storm protection benefits of the dunes are an important factor in determining fair compensation for land seized for the project.
DEP Commissioner Bob Martin said he hopes the ruling will encourage the remaining 165 holdouts in northern Ocean County, who control 317 disputed parcels, to sign easements to let the work begin.
"As we saw from Superstorm Sandy and coastal storms since, the beaches are vulnerable," he said. "We have the support of hundreds of beachfront homeowners who want the protection and volunteered their easements. It is only a limited number of holdouts who are delaying the process."
The judge granted a hearing on claims by homeowners in Bay Head and Mantoloking that their privately funded rock wall presents a special situation in that it might eliminate the need for the dune project in that area. Ford ruled the homeowners had established a preliminary case of "arbitrariness" on the part of the state in pushing forward with the project in that area, but said a further hearing is needed to determine the facts.