What is worth more, a dune or an ocean view?
That question is a lot easier to answer now that the New Jersey Supreme Court has reversed a decision that awarded $375,000 to a Harvey Cedars couple who lost their view to a dune.
The ruling reverses both Superior Court and Appellate Division decisions that awarded the $375,000 to Harvey and Phyllis Karan for the loss of about a quarter of their land and their view. Trial and appellate judges had ruled that the protective value of the dunes to the Karans' home should not be considered because the dunes protected everyone, not just the Karans.
The Supreme Court ordered a new trial, saying it was clear that oceanfront properties were far more likely to be damaged in a storm than homes farther inland, so the Karans did get a specific value from the dunes that was greater than the benefit to all residents. You could almost hear the winds of Hurricane Sandy blowing through the decision.
The issue was very personal for the Karans, who bought the home, valued at $1.9 million, largely for its views of the beach and ocean. And the court agreed that they should be compensated for their loss.
But about that "loss": Might the post-Sandy value of the home actually have been less without the protection of the dune? If the dune had never been built, how many buyers today would be willing to purchase an almost $2 million beachfront home that does not have dune protection? Could they even get a mortgage or flood insurance? Furthermore, the home might not have survived Sandy at all if that dune had not been there.
Those are all issues for a new jury to consider - or the Karans could simply sign the necessary easement, precluding the need for any kind of eminent-domain ruling.
The Supreme Court's decision makes it clear that the tides on the issue have shifted.
After Sandy, many Long Beach Island residents who had resisted signing dune easements said they were reconsidering. The Supreme Court has now made it clear that dunes provide a special added value to oceanfront properties, thus severely limiting the compensation that easement holdouts will be entitled to if they force towns into court.
"The Karans are entitled to just compensation, a reasonable calculation of any decrease in the fair market value of their property after the taking," the court said in its decision. "They are not entitled to more, and certainly not a windfall at the public's expense."
The Karans lost their view. They could have lost their house. The $300 the borough originally offered them should be looking better all the time.