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11/17/2011 - Beach Fill Lawsuits / Outrageous Awards

Press of Atlantic City Thursday, November 17, 2011 12:01 am What's an ocean view worth? The unobstructed vista of beach and crashing surf is one of the most desirable things in real estate. It certainly fuels the shore real estate market - for those who can afford the beachfront lifestyle - and the brisk sale of lottery tickets for those who wish they could. But is it worth endangering your home? Is it worth endangering your neighbors' homes, or your entire community? Is it worth putting the future of New Jersey's beaches at stake? Apparently, to some people, the answer is yes. How else can you explain the oceanfront residents of Harvey Cedars who have taken the borough to court and convinced juries that they are owed hundreds of thousands of dollars because a beach-replenishment project damaged their ocean views? Keep in mind this project was designed to safeguard these properties. Large beaches and dunes are the best protection against the fury of storms and hurricanes. If you doubt that, take a look at pictures of the 1962 storm, which ravaged the New Jersey shore and decimated Harvey Cedars. Dunes are most effective in an unbroken line. That means if a few beachfront property owners resist protection projects, they can make the effort less valuable for everyone. That's why Harvey Cedars used eminent domain to complete its 2008 dune project when it couldn't get homeowners to sign easements. The homeowners were compensated $300 for work done in front of their properties - work, keep in mind, that helped safeguard those properties and other homes in the borough. Some of the homeowners sued. In October, Harvey Cedars was forced to pay one homeowner $282,000 and another $265,000. In 2010, it settled with another property owner for $150,000. It is currently appealing a 2009 award of $400,000. And there are more trials on the way. The Army Corps of Engineers will help pay some of these judgments, but on top of them, the town has spent more than $650,000 in legal fees. These awards reverberate along the New Jersey coast and could have a chilling effect in other towns, where officials are trying to figure out how to finance their share of beach-replenishment projects. They also come at a time when it is getting harder to secure federal funding for beach protection. The peculiar economics of shore living mean that while oceanfront views can be privately enjoyed, the risks associated with them are publicly shared. Through federally subsidized flood insurance, taxpayers help pay for damages when storms rise up. Congress ought to address this issue, making federal flood insurance contingent on accepting beach-replenishment projects. There also should be common sense limits on how much property owners can be compensated for losing part of their views during efforts to safeguard their homes. b n


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