POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Sep 5, 2013
SURF CITY, N.J. » Anchor Produce Market sells homemade mozzarella, its own fresh salsa and what many regulars swear is the best sweet corn on Long Beach Island.
But, a sign on the counter declares, it will not sell anything to the owners of 63 Long Beach Blvd., 7 Coast Ave., 12 Sea View Drive South or 34 other nearby oceanfront properties.
Those owners have refused to grant easements to allow the federal government to build a massive dune along a 35-mile stretch of the Jersey Shore. Without the protective ridge of sand, engineers predict it is only a matter of time before homes, neighborhoods, even entire communities are wiped out by rising seas — a reality brought into stark relief by the devastation from Hurricane Sandy.
So until they sign the easements, holdouts should buy their groceries elsewhere.
These and other pressure tactics have been aimed at persuading the more than 1,000 seaside homeowners on two barrier islands who are refusing to allow dune construction on their properties, in many cases to protect their ocean views. But the measures have transformed a philosophical battle of property rights versus public good into a bitter neighbor-versus-neighbor ground war all along the coast.
Towns have tried to shame holdouts into signing easements by posting their names on websites and sending them to newspapers. Defiant owners say they have received threatening emails and phone calls and had dog feces left in their mailboxes or thrown on their decks. Friends have stopped speaking.
Still, many homeowners remain resolute, having already resisted through two punishing hurricanes, public shamings — a tactic encouraged by Gov. Chris Christie, who said he had "no sympathy" for their concerns — and a decision by the state's highest court that has encouraged towns to skip the easements and take the needed land by eminent domain. In August, the small town of Mantoloking announced its intention to begin doing just that to deal with its five remaining holdouts, with other communities expected to follow.
"It seems entirely selfish," said Mike Nichols, the owner of Anchor Produce, who considers himself "super lucky" because the storm in October washed four feet of sand into his home in nearby North Beach but did not destroy it. "The government doesn't want to annex your property," he added. "They want to build up dunes, protect everybody."
Holdouts say that they are within their rights and that efforts at persuasion have become abusive.
"I am almost tempted to say, does this guy have kids or grandkids, and I'll hack their school's computer and publish their grades," said Ken Burkhardt, alluding to Mayor Joe Mancini of Long Beach Township, who published Burkhardt's name along with other holdouts' on the town website. "It's an invitation for whackos to give you a hard time. It's my business whether I sign it or not."
The dune project, part of a $1 billion project to protect 50 miles of the state's beaches, which the Army Corps of Engineers has been discussing for more than a decade, involves building or raising existing dunes to 22 feet, which would have the secondary effect of adding about 200 feet of beach between homes and the ocean. Once built, the dunes become the property of the individual homeowners.
On the two barrier islands, between the Little Egg and Manasquan Inlets, the corps completed some dunes before Hurricane Sandy hit, and where there were dunes, the storm left relatively minor damage. Where there were not, homes — even many seemingly safely inland — were destroyed.
In some areas, homes with dunes were still damaged because of gaps left by neighbors without them. One example was in Surf City, where the corps had built dunes along all but two blocks of oceanfront, where six homeowners would not grant easements, providing an opening for the storm surge to flood the neighborhood.
The damage led to a redoubling of the effort to complete the protective barrier, which the corps has said it will not do without the permission from all oceanfront property owners.
"People say we're trying to bully or incite," Mancini said. "We're not trying to do any of that. What we're trying to do is get ready for the next storm — which will hit."
Hurricane Sandy prompted many homeowners to drop their opposition to the dunes.
"People came down to look at their houses after the storm and said, 'Where do we sign?'" said Peter Hartney, a councilman in Surf City.
More striking, though, was how some people still refused.
In Ship Bottom, south of Surf City, officials put up an electronic street sign to count down how many easements in the borough remained to be signed. After the hurricane the number dropped to 24 from 64, then stalled. Long Beach Township, by far the largest municipality on the island, needed easements from 475 owners, but 50 still refuse.
And in the oceanfront sections of Toms River, on the barrier island north of Long Beach Island, there are 40 holdouts, including several condominium associations, accounting for about a third of the property facing the Atlantic. That includes a group of cottages in Ortley Beach, which the hurricane all but leveled.
"If we thought marching on them would make a difference, we would," said Bill Kunz, who lives in an oceanfront home in the Brant Beach section of Long Beach Township and has been trying to help the town collect signatures. His next-door neighbors are holdouts; they no longer even exchange pleasantries.
Officials say the easements strictly prohibit the government from doing anything more than building and maintaining the dunes, similar to the easements owners everywhere give to sewer utilities and cable companies for lines under their properties. Opponents have warned against a government takeover, some fearing that signing easements will give towns permission to erect boardwalks or bathrooms, too.
"It almost sounded like by signing the easement, you were giving all the rights to your private property," said Tom Cangialosi, the treasurer of Surf Cottages Homeowners Association in Ortley Beach, where the storm flooded all the houses with more than four feet of water. "You can't swallow that."
Lawyers sent cease-and-desist letters to towns that posted names of people who did not sign easements; the towns ignored them.
"These holdouts have become villainized because they're upholding their constitutional and civil rights," said Kenneth Porro, a lawyer representing several homeowners. (Porro is based in northern New Jersey and says he took over the cases after local lawyers were harassed as much as their clients.)
Officials and lawyers for the holdouts agree that more people would sign if the towns paid them. But the storm shifted that debate, too. In July, the state Supreme Court overruled lower court decisions requiring the borough of Harvey Cedars to compensate a couple $375,000 for building a dune that obstructed their ocean views, noting that the added protection had value. Towns took this as a signal that they would not have to pay huge amounts if they took land by eminent domain, as Harvey Cedars had.
In Ortley Beach, the Surf Cottages association is having owners vote on whether to grant the easement. Cangialosi, the treasurer, said he had personally come to believe that signing the easement was better than having the town take the land, and that the town intended to do just that.
But he cannot predict how the membership will vote.
"There are some people who will be screaming and going down with the drum and fife," he said. "But anybody who really thinks about things and considers the alternative will see: they want this, they're going to do it. Your choice is sign, or face the consequences."