EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — Some neighbors along Point Drive have paid thousands of dollars to protect their properties after state courts ruled a property owner does not have to repair the tattered bulkhead adjacent to his backyard because maps show it is not technically on his property.
And with memories of Hurricane Sandy fresh in their minds, township officials said the courts have kept them from doing anything more. If a neighbor wants the property owner, Bruce Gittleman, to repair the bulkhead, township Administrator Peter Miller said, the ruling “means that this neighbor ... will have to file a civil action suit.”
Gittleman’s neighbors are unhappy.
“I think it’s ridiculous,” said next-door neighbor Joe Leonard, 63, who said he paid $3,200 this month to install a 16-foot sideyard bulkhead between his and Gittleman’s yards, and said he now has to shore up his back porch. “The whole thing is just ridiculous. Every one of us paid for a bulkhead to cover (our) property.”
“That's really a mess up there,” added David J. Denelsbeck, 78, who lives five houses away. “It (the water) is almost back to his house."
“Luckily I don't have to live next to this — the words would be very colorful,” said Leonard H. Dagit Jr., 51, who lives five houses away in the opposite direction.
Gittleman, 65, did not return repeated written and telephone messages seeking comment. Eric C. Garrabrant, an attorney who has represented him in appellate court and other matters, did not respond to messages seeking comment.
Egg Harbor Township is like other waterfront communities that fight a running battle with the tides by requiring property owners maintain the bulkheads on their properties. These bulwarks are a community defense to the forces of erosion, and township code describes “dilapidated bulkheads” as a hazard to “occupants, pedestrians and other persons utilizing the premises.”
According to a June 10 Appellate Division decision, an unspecified Point Drive neighbor filed a property maintenance complaint against Gittleman in August 2009 alleging Gittleman had allowed the bulkhead adjacent to his property to become dilapidated. Leonard said he initially called the township.
Pat J. Naticchione, a township inspector, visited the property and ordered Gittleman to make repairs. When the repairs weren't done several months later, Naticchione cited Gittleman for the infraction.
Gittleman fought the citation, and at a municipal court trial both he and Naticchione agreed that the bulkhead in question was slightly beyond Gittleman's property limits.
But Naticchione argued Gittleman was still responsible for maintaining the bulkhead, just like he would have to care for an adjacent curb or sidewalk. “That bulkhead is in the lagoon; (an) inlet is considered a street, and that (bulkhead) is the curb line of it,” Naticchione said at trial.
Municipal Judge H. Robert Switzer agreed with Naticchione, saying Gittleman owned to the high-tide mark on the continuous bulkhead because he could be responsible for land the tides added to his property.
Switzer found Gittleman guilty of a misdemeanor and fined him $47,000, or $100 for each day he violated the ordinance. The judge indicated he would waive all but $100 of the fine if Gittleman made the repairs.
When Gittleman appealed, however, Superior Court Judge Kyran Connor agreed with him, saying there was no evidence Gittleman's property line was either affected by tidal flow or that the waterway existed naturally and was therefore controlled by the state.
The state Appellate Division last month tossed out the township's subsequent appeal on grounds that the township could not seek to retry Gittleman once the Superior Court found him innocent of the violation. The court said it is unconstitutional to prosecute a person for an offense once they have been acquitted.
Miller said the ruling surprised him, because the township always considered it to be a property-maintenance issue, rather than a criminal proceeding that could create double jeopardy.
The ruling also means the ownership of the bulkhead is uncertain, Miller said. “This is not the first time that we’ve had a bulkhead issue where there was some deterioration and we said you need to do something under the code,” Miller said. “This is the first time someone said, ‘Ah, I don't think I’m going to fix it.’”
Finances may have played a role in Gittleman's decision to let his bulkhead deteriorate.
State court records show that HSBC Bank USA, N.A. has been in foreclosure litigation over the property since January 2010.
Atlantic County records also show Egg Harbor Township has repeatedly sold liens for uncollected taxes at Gittleman's property. The $3,279 sale in December 2010 and $3,351 sale in December 2011 were later canceled by the county after they were apparently redeemed, but records show a $3,635 sale in December 2012 is still outstanding.
Property owners in New Jersey generally have two years to redeem tax sale certificates before the lien holder can start foreclosure proceedings.
At the property recently, water flowed freely between the bulkhead’s wooden boards, which had sizable holes in them. Waves had eroded Gittleman’s ground to within feet of his back porch, encroaching on his neighbor’s ground, and in now-inaccessible parts of his backyard, cut off by deep gullies, tall weeds grew. Several cubic yards of sand from his property appeared to have washed into the adjacent canal.
On July 2, crews from American Marine Construction of Petersburg, Upper Township, installed bulkheads between Gittleman’s property and his two sets of neighbors — Leonard on on one side and Carole Ernst-Convey on the other.
Ernst-Convey, 50, said the 16 feet of sheet pilings along her property line cost her $3,200. She said “it was worth it,” to protect her property.
For now, neighbors say they can do nothing but wait and hope.
“I don’t know where it’s going at this point,” Dagit said. “Given what's happened, what's occurred vis-à-vis Sandy, bulkheads are an essential part of shore protection, property protection, and another event like that, who knows how much land we're going to lose?”
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