In some future world where a strong line of dunes protects all of New Jersey's shore communities, and where those dunes are a source of pride for residents and are envied by other coastal states, historians may look back to find the turning point in the state's shore-protection efforts. They could do worse than to look at two events from last week.
In one, a landmark case concerning beach easements was settled. And on the same day, Gov. Chris Christie issued an executive order to put more state muscle behind beach protection.
Last Wednesday, a Harvey Cedars couple, Harvey and Phyllis Karan, agreed to accept $1 to settle a lawsuit they had filed after the borough used eminent domain to construct a 22-foot-high sand dune in front of their home. A trial court awarded the couple $375,000 as the value of the easement, and the Appellate Division upheld that award. But in July, the state Supreme Court threw out the award, holding that the special benefit provided to homeowners by a protective dune must be considered in determining fair compensation for a shore easement.
The $375,000 award had been a lightning rod for criticism. Dune advocates feared it would make future projects unaffordable and would encourage property owners to hold out for a big payday rather than sign easements.
After Hurricane Sandy hit New Jersey last October - and the Karans' $1.9 million Harvey Cedars house was protected by the new dune in front of it - it became clear that the state had to take shoreline protection much more seriously. And to do that, there had to be an affordable way of acquiring easements.
The Supreme Court's ruling reset the ground rules for determining fair compensation for a lost ocean view, and the $1 settlement is a step toward sanity. But this is certainly not the last battle to be fought between oceanfront property owners and shore towns.
Which is why Christie's executive order is important. Christie directed the Attorney General's Office to coordinate legal action to acquire the easements for shore protection projects. The order also created the Office of Flood Hazard Risk Reduction to oversee efforts needed to get shore protection projects completed. Both changes should help shore towns that have been carrying on this legal battle alone.
In that rosy future, New Jersey residents and visitors may learn to love the sight of grass-covered dunes, valuing their natural beauty as much as the protection they provide.
Until then, the shore can use all the help it can get.