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Legal wrangles delay sea defenses in New Jersey towns hit by Sandy

Heavy machinery moves large rocks to build a new sea wall nearly five months after the landfall of Superstorm Sandy in Bay Head, New Jersey,
Heavy machinery moves large rocks to build a new sea wall nearly five months after the landfall of Superstorm Sandy in Bay Head, New Jersey,

By Philip Barbara

SHIP BOTTOM, New Jersey (Reuters) - A temporary flashing sign on the causeway to New Jersey's Long Beach Island thanks owners of oceanfront properties who have accepted a plan to build new barriers to protect them from storms like Sandy, which ravaged the U.S. northeast coast last year.

And to pressure homeowners who have not agreed to the plan, the blinking sign also tallies the number of holdouts.

Some towns still coping with the clean-up and reconstruction since the superstorm surged ashore in October are embroiled in legal tangles that pit resident against resident and are delaying projects to build new wider beaches or protective dunes to prevent a repeat of the destruction.

Along the New Jersey coast, hundreds of property owners in about a dozen resort towns are refusing to agree to plans under which the federal government would build 22-foot (7-meter) tall sand dunes that would protect oceanfront homes and interior neighborhoods but block the view of the sea. Some owners are resisting because they worry that signing on to the projects would force them to cede long-term rights to the strip of land the dunes are built on.

Town mayors are in a bind because without unanimous support, the projects, which have strong support from residents who don't own beachfront property and support from many who do, can't go ahead.

Washington has approved $60 billion in disaster aid for battered East Coast cities and towns. According to project guidelines, if mayors can't deliver signatures for a solid mile of oceanfront or, if the town is less than a mile wide, from everyone along the ocean, they can't get a project approved. The towns could take control of the land under the "eminent domain" law to force the holdouts to comply. But local funds, not federal money, must be used to pay for the taking of the land.

In Ship Bottom, a beachfront town 80 miles south of New York City that has 1,150 year-round residents but swells to several times that number during peak summer weekends, Mayor William Huelsenbeck said a committee of "concerned citizens" was going round knocking on the doors of resisters to make the case for complying.

As neighbors confront neighbors, Huelsenbeck was also using the road sign, which stands on the only entrance to the island, as his "scoreboard" to put more pressure on dissenters. "Thanks for helping us help you, Ship Bottom. 18 easements to go," the sign flashed this week.

SAND DUNES

There's little doubt that these defenses would work. Since the late 1980s, the Army Corps of Engineers has built coastal defenses along 48 miles of the 127-mile (204-km) Jersey Shore by widening beaches, erecting artificial sand dunes and planting vegetation, at a cost of about $700 million. Waterfront homes in towns with these engineered beaches largely escaped the damage of Sandy's epic surge. Those without, didn't.

Long Beach Island residents who refuse to give the necessary project permissions declined to be interviewed, saying they feared being publicly identified and harassed. But mayors of several towns said the holdouts have told them their refusal is less about losing the view than concern that town authorities may eventually build a boardwalk or snack stand on their easements.

"They've backed property owners into a corner," said Patrick Greber, who controls an oceanfront home in Ship Bottom through a trust. "They say they're never going to develop the property but won't put that in writing."

The dissenters may also be biding their time in the hope of getting compensation if the government does invoke its eminent domain rights. Harvey and Phyllis Karan, residents of the tiny barrier island township of Harvey Cedars, won a $375,000 judgment in March 2012 after successfully suing the town for devaluing their property by building dunes that blocked their ocean views.

"Holdouts are looking at a new lottery based on the Karan case," said Long Beach Township Mayor Joseph Mancini. He and other mayors noted that towns have limited funds at their disposal.

The Karans' payout, though, is in question. In October the dunes sheltered their house from Sandy and their case is being appealed to the state Supreme Court, where shore towns are arguing that the prior ruling did not take into account the "special benefit" of the protective sand.

The New Jersey state legislature is considering a bill that would require courts to factor in the value added by the dunes when assessing eminent domain awards for diminished views.

'SELFISH' HOME OWNERS?

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has promised to support local officials trying to win over the resisters.

"It's selfish (for homeowners) not to co-operate," Christie told Reuters in an interview. "Those that resist, they're not only leaving their own homes in peril next time, but those homes behind them as well."

With the memories of Sandy still fresh, other homeowners need less convincing. In the town of Holgate, where residents previously refused to allow the engineered beaches, the surge from the storm shoved scores of houses off their foundations. In nearby Brant Beach, just a few miles to the north, the artificial dunes successfully protected the town against the surge. Everyone in Holgate has now signed easement papers to take advantage of the federal money, Mancini said.

In the town of Bay Head, where many Wall Street executives own vacation homes, oceanfront property owners are getting started on new defenses without waiting for government payouts. Crews with heavy equipment have begun moving three-ton boulders into place to extend an 18-foot-high (6-meter-high) sea wall by about 1,300 feet.

The existing sea wall, built in 1963 after a destructive storm, saved many large homes from being washed away by Sandy. The new extension will cost the owners of a typical 100 foot (30 meter) oceanfront property $170,000.

Engineered beaches are still needed in the remaining unprotected 50 developed miles of the Jersey Shore -- they are not needed along 25 miles of state parks.

The U.S. Congress has authorized projects for many towns that will take several years to complete and cost hundreds of millions of dollars - with 65 percent paid with Sandy aid and the rest out of state and local coffers, said Keith Watson, a coastal engineer for the Army Corps of Engineers.

Where there are jetties and inlets, the Corps, the primary U.S. agency for controlling the risk of coastal flooding, will use an interlocking concrete unit it invented and that it employed in overseas projects in Egypt, Ireland, Oman and other countries.

(Editing by Arlene Getz and David Storey)

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