On Monday, at a joint hearing of Senate and Assembly environmental committees, state lawmakers moved to restore a bit of sanity to New Jersey's tangled legal landscape concerning dunes and beachfront property owners.
One of the nine shore-restoration bills under consideration is intended to address the ridiculous judgments that courts have awarded some shore property owners when their views were obstructed by man-made dunes, even though those dunes protect their homes.
The nine bills lawmakers are considering are a bit of a mixed bag. One, which would appropriate $100 million - $60 million more than Gov. Chris Christie has asked for - to a shore-rebuilding contingency fund, seems like a feel-good effort that would be very difficult to pay for.
The most controversial bill would wrest control of beaches from shore towns and give the responsibility for their maintenance - and beach fees - to coastal counties. Lawmakers can expect plenty of opposition from local governments, especially in the southern part of the state, where this is a solution in search of a problem.
But one of the bills, sponsored by Sen. Jim Whelan, D-Atlantic, and Assemblywoman Grace Spencer, D-Essex, is a clear winner. It would require that judges consider the way a strong dune line increases property values in determining compensation when part of a beachfront lot is used for dune construction.
This long-overdue measure could help reverse a trend in which large judgments to individual oceanfront property owners are penalizing shore towns that want to do the right thing to protect all homeowners.
In March, for example, just seven months before Hurricane Sandy slammed into the Jersey shore, a state appeals court upheld a $375,000 award that a Harvey Cedars couple received because a dune built in front of their home as part of a beach restoration project obstructed their view of the ocean.
At the time, mayors of shore towns said that such huge awards could make future beach restoration projects prohibitively expensive.
Sandy made clear just how necessary those beach projects are - and how valuable dunes are in protecting shore homes. All along the state's 127-mile coastline, areas with strong dune systems withstood Sandy's onslaught better than places without dunes. In towns where oceanside property owners had stood in the way of sand-pumping projects, many of those beachfront homes - and the neighbors behind them - paid an awful price during the storm.
By requiring judges to consider how dunes add to property values, this bill would help restore some balance and security to life at the shore.