Midway Beach, a small oceanfront community on the New Jersey shore, was barely impacted by Superstorm Sandy, due largely to the large sand dunes its nearly 400 homeowners built and maintained over the decades.
Then, state officials told the community's condominium association that the government was seizing the beach to make way for protective sand dunes that would be smaller than what was already there. So, the residents went to court.
On Friday, a state judge ruled that the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection can move forward with the land seizure by using its power of eminent domain. Superior Court Judge Marlene Lynch Ford's decision came after a lawyer for the state promised that no existing dunes will be shortened when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers undertakes the project.
The dunes are 25 feet tall on average, compared with the proposed 22-foot-height of the Army Corps project.
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The decision marked the seventh time a judge has ruled in favor of the state, which has not lost a dune condemnation case in nearly five years of litigation following the destructive 2012 storm.
Dominick Solazzo, president of the condo association, said it would appeal the ruling, which left longtime homeowners flabbergasted.
"We were one of the very few communities that didn't suffer during Sandy," said Alison Cornell, who has lived in an oceanfront home in Midway Beach for over 40 years. "Midway Beach was saved by the dunes that we put in place and maintained all these years. We believe we will be worse off as a result (of the ruling). It's absolutely the wrong thing to do."
Oceanfront communities to the north of Midway Beach, which is a section of Berkeley Township, suffered some of the worst damage from Sandy; in 2013, Britain's Prince Harry stopped by to tour the wreckage just two miles from Midway Beach.
"Why don't they just leave us alone?" asked oceanfront resident Irene Wanzie. "There are certainly parts of the Jersey shore that need dunes to protect themselves. But by us, it's fine."
The judge said she was obligated to determine whether the state demonstrated bad faith, fraud or other malfeasance in deciding to seize the land, finding no evidence of any such conduct. She has ruled in favor of the state in numerous other dune condemnation cases, upholding its right to use eminent domain to seize land for a publicly beneficial project after paying fair compensation for it.
A state appraiser determined the land is worth $6.6 million; the state offered $500 for it, citing the storm protection benefits the project would bring.
Among them, Apy said, would be filling in street-level gaps between the dunes where access walks now exist, and adding another 100 feet of sand between the dunes and the ocean. The government would be obligated to maintain the project periodically over the next 50 years. But Anthony Della Pelle, the attorney for the homeowners, said the very people who built and maintained a dune that survived the worst storm to hit New Jersey in modern history will no longer be able to touch it when things go wrong.
"We have an excellent beach right now," said longtime resident Sophie Kauchak, "and we want them to leave it that way."