HARVEY CEDARS — A legal battle involving a borough couple who said a dune project ruined their beachfront view has been settled for just one dollar, after a trial jury placed the value of the easement at $375,000.
In reversing the jury award for oceanfront homeowners Harvey and Phyllis Karan, the state Supreme Court held, in a landmark decision in July, that homeowners who are subject to property-taking on behalf of public projects “are not entitled to a windfall.”
“Looking ahead, we expect that other beachfront property owners will recognize this reality, and will take their cue from the outcome in this case,” said Division of Law Director Christopher S. Porrino, who argued the matter in the Supreme Court.
Timed with the news of the nominal settlement between the borough and the Karans, Gov. Chris Christie signed an executive order Wednesday that will provide more bureaucratic muscle when it comes to taking action to build protective sand dunes, berms, engineered beaches and other flood-hazard risk reduction measures along New Jersey’s coastline and other flood-prone regions.
Christie’s order will help municipalities by clearing the way for dune construction to protect homes and businesses along the state’s 127 miles of shoreline.
The order, which took effect Wednesday, allows the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to begin beach replenishment projects by directing acting Attorney General John Hoffman to immediately coordinate legal action to acquire the necessary easements to complete projects. Christie’s order also establishes the Office of Flood Hazard Risk Reduction Measures as part of the state Department of Environmental Protection, which will lead and coordinate efforts to acquire the property necessary to complete dune projects.
Christie said Wednesday that the impact of the Karans’ settlement should be clear to anyone who thinks they were in line for a big government check. He said Hurricane Sandy changed everything, and it’s time to do the right thing to not only protect one’s own property, but the property of one’s neighbors.
“As we rebuild from Superstorm Sandy, we need to make sure we are stronger, more resilient and prepared for future storms, and dunes are a major component of this process,” he said. “I am doing everything in my power to get them in place as soon as possible. We can no longer be held back from completing these critical projects by a small number of owners who are selfishly concerned about their view while putting large swaths of homes and businesses around them at risk.”
This was all welcome news for Harvey Cedars Mayor John Oldham and other Long Beach Island officials who continue the battle to obtain easements to complete beach replenishment projects.
Oldham said he and borough Commissioners Michael Garofalo and Judith Gerkens now know they did the right thing by pursuing easements through eminent domain during a three-and-a-half-year process.
“I feel like I’m not crazy now. When some of those awards were coming out for the easements, I did start to second-guess myself. I asked myself, ‘Are we looking at something wrong, are we missing something here?’ But Mike, Judy and I were right, and we did the right thing,” he said.
“The only thing that’s important from this point forward is that the rest of LBI and the rest of state do their projects, too, and that tourism is protected,” he said.
Mark Mauriello, a former Department of Environmental Protection commissioner and coastal flood expert, said that whether the governor will be able to enforce some of the provisions of his executive order is unclear.
“I’m not sure what the reality will be and what the responsibility and authority will be of the (newly created) office,” Mauriello said. However, he said, “if it removes the barriers in some areas to get the public projects built, then that’s a good thing.”
The settlement with the Karans comes after a legal battle that began when the borough pursued eminent domain to obtain easements to complete a multimillion-dollar beachfill project, which included a 22-foot-high dune on a portion of the couple’s lot.
The borough used its power of eminent domain to acquire the needed easement, but the borough and the Karans could not agree on fair compensation for the property.
A trial jury placed the value of the easement at $375,000, and the Superior Court’s Appellate Division upheld that verdict. But the Karans’ six-figure award was overturned July 8, when the state Supreme Court ordered a new trial.
The Supreme Court held that proven storm protection benefits provided by sand dunes and beach replenishment must be factored into the fair-compensation equation.
The Karans’ lawyer, Peter Wegener, said the Karans agreed to the settlement because they were just tired of fighting.
“They are an elderly couple and they are simply exhausted by their years of protracted litigation,” he said. “They’re honestly sick and tired of the whole thing. They’re disappointed in the system of justice, and want to get on with the rest of their lives without politicians berating them for believing the state should pay for what it takes.”
Long Beach Township Joe Mancini said the news Wednesday couldn’t come at a better time as the municipality moves forward with eminent domain for 52 oceanfront homeowners who have refused to sign easements for a beachfill project.
“But the bottom line is, this is one settlement. Does this mean all settlements will be one dollar? No, I doubt that it will. That is one comparable sale so to speak. We could still have someone go in and get $10,000 or $20,000, but the days of people getting $375,000 are over,” he said.
Margate Mayor Michael Becker said obviously for communities across the state it will be a lot easier moving forward with dune projects. The city has a nonbinding referendum on the Nov. 5 asking voters if they favor a dune project.
“You had that high settlement hanging over your heads which would cause people to hold out and wait. This decision will affect some people that were sitting back and holding out,” said Becker, who added that in his city only 10 easements are needed if the dune project moves forward.
Staff Writer Sarah Watson and The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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