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Hurricane Sandy pounded New Jersey back in October and has prompted serious debate about how best to protect coastal towns. The state wants to build bigger sand dunes to protect against a storm surge. But some beachfront homeowners say the plan threatens their property rights.
From member station WNYC, Janet Babin reports.
JANET BABIN, BYLINE: Ortley Beach is on a barrier island about two hours south of New York City.
(SOUNDBITE OF OCEAN WAVES)
BABIN: Dale Belli had a house here a half-block from the ocean. After Sandy though, all that's left are bits of foundation. She's scavenges through the rubble, to salvage what she can find.
DALE BELLI: My Christmas placemats, not worth anything now.
BABIN: But about three miles south of Ortley on Midway Beach, damage to most homes near the ocean was minimal. Residents say their tall dunes saved them.
Dominick Salazzo, with a local condo association, takes me on a tour in his dune buggy.
(SOUNDBITE OF A VEHICLE)
DOMINIC SALAZZO: Okay. This is a good example of what we're doing here.
BABIN: Beach grass grows on the tops of the 18-foot-tall dunes and they're surrounded by zigzag fencing filled in with a few used Christmas trees that help trap the sand.
SALAZZO: So we're starting this Facebook page and Internet page to try to get people to donate Christmas trees to help restoring the dunes.
BABIN: Some towns started federally funded projects years ago that would make their dunes more like the ones here on Midway Beach. After superstorm Sandy, towns redoubled the push to rebuild dunes. But to do it, oceanfront residents have to sign property easements, legal documents that allow municipalities to build up the dunes in their front yards.
Governor Christie addressed the issue a few weeks after the storm.
GOVERNOR CHRIS CHRISTIE: We had municipalities who were offered this assistance and residents refused to sign the easement because they didn't want it to block their view. Well, they don't have to worry about that now. They got no house.
BABIN: In one township on Long Beach Island, about 100 of the 470 oceanfront residents still won't sign the easements. Dorothy Jedziniak one of them.
DOROTHY JEDZINIAK: If we did sign it, we give up our land. Assignment means that your local politicians could assign a walkway, toilets, whatever.
MAYOR JOE MANCINI: The easement is totally just for putting sand on a beach for replenishment basis.
BABIN: That's Long Beach Township Mayor Joe Mancini. He says what oceanfront property owners really want is for local governments to compensate them. Attorney Kenneth Porro says they should get paid. He represents some Long Beach Island homeowners.
KENNETH PORRO: Take out the word dune and put in the word park, put in the word street. These are all public purposes where government has the power to take private property, but again, must pay just compensation.
BABIN: So far, New Jersey courts have agreed, forcing local governments to pay homeowners for easements. But a case before New Jersey Supreme Court could change that. Seton Hall law professor Paula Franzese says especially after superstorm Sandy, the government could make a compelling argument that homeowners were saved by the very dunes they were compensated for.
PAULA FRANZESE: The private property owners affected adversely by government's dune building are also reaping a benefit because of government's dune building.
BABIN: That benefit will cost taxpayers billions of dollars and some researchers point out that sand moves, so dune replenishment has to be done over and over again. Since superstorm Sandy, the dune issue has pitted neighbor against neighbor, with some shore residents blaming the non-signers for all the sand that ended up in their homes.
Local governments are ramping up the pressure, too. Dorothy Jedziniak, who wouldn't sign, says municipal workers cleared away sand from a dune in front of her house, leaving a big gulley. She says it's like a scarlet letter.
JEDZINIAK: Everyone that walks the beach, oh, there's the Jedziniaks. Those are the ones that won't sign, that are exposing us to danger.
BABIN: Danger because if a Nor'easter comes along before new dunes are built, officials say damage from that storm surge would be much worse than it was from Sandy. With millions of homes, plus a $35 billion tourism economy at risk, New Jersey will have to balance the rights of private property owners with the rights of the public. For NPR News, I'm Janet Babin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.