In 2013, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie ordered state agencies to do whatever it took to build an engineered dune system along the entire Jersey Shore to protect from storms like Sandy.
Most oceanfront property owners have signed the necessary easements and dune-building is finally starting this spring on Long Beach Island.
As the state starts eminent domain proceedings, however, holdouts concerned about personal property rights are refusing to sign over permission to build dunes on their land, leaving a giant hole in the shore’s protections as hurricane season approaches.
Dune-building started this month on Long Beach, a skinny piece of land connected to mainland New Jersey by a bridge.
Giant dredging boats far off the coast are sucking up sand from the bottom of the ocean where it’s then pumped to the wide, sandy beach. Earth-moving machines push it into tall hills in front of shorefront homes. Eventually, long grasses will be planted to slow erosion.
“We need the dunes,” says Angelo Giafaglione, who watches the process with approval. “Build ’em up, make the beach bigger.”
For nearly a decade in the tiny borough of Ship Bottom, inland residents such as Giafaglione have been pitted against oceanfront property owners who refused to allow dunes to be built on their property.
“I feel they were stupid,” he says. “You gotta think of everybody else; you can’t just think of yourself. So I’m glad that this is getting done now.”
Among the last holdouts in the area were Dorothy and Ted Jedziniak. They gave their permission last June, in part because the state offered assurances that a boardwalk and bathrooms would not be built on their quiet beachfront property.
“OK, we give in, we’re not going to fight anymore,” Dorothy says. “Just so long as the home rule and owning property is respected, and they assured us it was. So that’s it!”
Since 2013, state and local officials have convinced property owners like the Jedziniaks to sign nearly 2,500 easements that allow the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to build dunes on private land. But today, nearly 400 of those easements are still outstanding.
Most of those outstanding easements are in northern Ocean County.
“We prefer to take care of our problems with our own money as opposed to wasting taxpayer money,” says Thacher Brown, who’s standing in front of his house on a dune he rebuilt after Superstorm Sandy.
“We, along with 14 neighbors — there were 15 of us — put in a rock revetment, and we then covered those rocks with several feet of sand, and we covered the sand with dune grass,” he says.
The Army Corps of Engineers says one uniform dune system will protect the shore better than a piecemeal one built by individuals and towns. But Brown and his neighbors oppose signing easements they see as transferring parts of their private land to the public — forever.
“The government wants to take a perpetual interest in our beaches,” Brown says, “which are privately owned even though we allow the public on them.”
Gov. Christie has repeatedly said he’s not trying to turn private beaches into public attractions, but many holdouts are distrustful.
Last month, New Jersey Commissioner of Environmental Protection Bob Martin said the state would take Brown and his Bay Head neighbors to court over the issue.
“Out of 124 easements we need, all we have is two,” he says. “We’ve got a lot of people that are being very selfish right now.”
The state attorney general’s office expects to start filing for eminent domain, or the compulsory public acquisition of private land, within the next several weeks.
As they watch how legal challenges elsewhere on the shore progress, Bay Head residents are already planning their defense strategy; they say it might include pushing for millions of dollars of compensation they don’t think New Jersey has in its budget.