Dorothy Jedziniak is worried about a dune she and her husband Ted first built back in the 1970s.
“We watched over [it] so many years and helped plant and nourished it,” she said, standing on the beach outside the Ship Bottom home where the couple has lived for more than 40 years.
They say they have always cared for this dune, but now, it has a swimming pool-sized hole in it.
“Why mark us like we’re evil?” asked Jedziniak. “That’s like a scarlet letter.”
After Superstorm Sandy, the town pushed sand up onto neighboring dunes to restore what the sea had taken, but they didn’t do the Jedziniak’s portion of the dune. Since 2005, the couple has fought against signing an easement, a contract to allow public workers to build and maintain the dune.
About a quarter of the 64 private ocean-front properties in Ship Bottom aren’t signing. It’s pitted neighbor against neighbor.
“I go to a council meeting and we’re called dumb and stupid,” said Jedziniak. “The one councilman says, ‘you’re the reason for all this destruction because you didn’t sign.’”
The Jedziniaks didn’t have any water damage during Sandy, but since the storm, the pressure to sign the easements has intensified. Congress approved federal funding for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to build and repair dunes along much of New Jersey Atlantic coastline.
Agreement is necessary for dunes to be effective
New Jersey would like to build engineered dunes and beaches along 80 miles of the 95 miles of developed shore. Before the storm, dunes were complete on roughly half those areas.
But the Army Corps will only start a project if a town has all of its easements signed, as dunes don’t work well if they’re dotted with holes.
“A gap or a weak spot, as the waves rush up, they’re going to come through that spot and come into the town,” said Dwight Pakan, a project manager with the Army Corps.
Standing on an engineered beach in Ocean City, Pakan noted that before the Army Corps began work on this beach in 1990, the water used to reach up to and even underneath the pilings of the boardwalk. He added that the millions of cubic yards of sand added over the years helped to protect the boardwalk and Ocean City during Sandy — that storm damage here would have been much worse without it.
Because of the protective nature of dunes, homeowners who don’t sign the easements are often regarded as self-centered, more concerned about maintaining their ocean views than the safety of their neighbors.
“We would sign in a minute it they’d just say no to construction”
“We will go town by town and if we have to, start calling names out of the selfish ones who care more about their views than the safety of their neighbors,” said Gov. Chris Christie, speaking at a town-hall meeting last month.
“We don’t wish them bad,” Jedziniak said of her neighbors. “But to take away from one to another, I don’t know if that’s American.”
As for the view or money, Jedziniak says she doesn’t own the view and she’s not looking for compensation. Her main concern is the language of the contract, which she thinks is too broad. She worries it would allow for the construction of a boardwalk or other commerce in the future, so she wants the easement to state that any construction will be limited to building and maintaining the dunes.
“We would sign in a minute if they’d just say no construction,” she said. “If they would put that, we’d gladly, gladly sign.”
Other property owners share Jedziniak’s concerns: no boardwalks, no bathrooms, no concession stands.
“If those types of reasonable requests are put in, I think you’re going to see the majority of people sign off,” said Ken Porro, a lawyer who represents 20 property owners, including Jedziniak. “If government continues to take the position of their way or the highway, you’re going to continue to have people dig in and say they’re not going to sign.”
Recently, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection indicated that it is willing to revisit the language of the contract.
“We’re working the Army Corps to see what kinds of language changes can be made to that [easement] template, to address any misconceptions people may have as to what an easement does or does not do,” said spokesperson Lawrence Hajna.
That’s news to Porro.
“I had not heard that,” he said. “That is welcomed.”
What about compensation?
However, there’s a another, stickier issue: Some property owners want compensation. They’ll lose use of the land, they say, and their property values will drop if they also lose their ocean views. So if the government needs the land for the good of the public, they should be compensated.
“Why we can’t follow the law where you take private property and pay just compensation, that’s a constitution[al] right, that’s 200 years of history?” asked Porro.
The DEP’s Hajna responded that in a civil society, sometimes people have to make sacrifices for the common good. Plus, he says the dunes are in property-owners’ best interest, too.
“I think the message that has become clear after Sandy is that your view’s not work a heck of a lot if your property’s not standing,” he said.