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

Fri Apr 5, 2013 7:03am EDT
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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.   Continued...

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, March 22, 2013. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson