City Council gave final approval Tuesday to taking property rights from beachfront owners who refuse to allow the construction of dunes and the widening of beaches in front of their Ocean City homes.
In a unanimous vote Oct. 22 at its public meeting Oct. 10 at the Ocean City Free Public Library, council approved the second reading of an ordinance that authorizes the "acquisition of certain interests in real properties by negotiation, purchase, condemnation or eminent domain."
Obtaining easements from property owners who have rights to "unbuildable" land on the beach is the final obstacle to a beach-replenishment and dune-building project likely to start in spring 2014 on beaches between 34th Street and Corson's Inlet State Park.
City Solicitor Dorothy McCrosson said the city still needs 25 signed easements, but she expects eight to be returned by next week. She said she's prepared to appraise the unbuildable portions of the remaining 17 properties and begin the process of negotiating for easement rights or moving toward eminent domain.
McCrosson said that, with the exception of one who expressed a general distrust of government, the property owners she's been able to contact have consented to sign easements.
But in public comment, Larry Carron, owner of a beachfront property on the 3800 block of Wesley Avenue, expressed concern about the lack of specifications in the easement agreement.
"I would like to have some parameters," Carron said. "We don't have any rights at all. And it's in perpetuity."
The city must obtain easements before an Army Corps of Engineers project to rebuild beaches and dunes at the southern end of Ocean City can begin in March 2014. The project will also include Strathmere and Sea Isle City.
Beaches at Ocean City's southern end were severely eroded even before Superstorm Sandy struck in October 2012, but the storm's record flooding wiped out dunes and pushed much of the beach onto the streets.
A hodgepodge of different deeds give some but not all beachfront owners rights to the public beach area in front of their homes. The ordinance authorizes the city to use whatever means necessary to acquire any property that is a separate unimproved lot (on the beach) and to acquire an easement for properties with a residential or commercial structure.
All the easements in question are for property on the "ocean side of the bulkhead," according to McCrosson.
A recent state Supreme Court case gave a Long Beach Island couple just $1 to settle a lawsuit over a seized easement. The decision said the courts must consider not only the loss of value to a beachfront property from views blocked by dunes, but also the added protective value the dunes bring to a property.
The decision fueled an executive order from Gov. Chris Christie to have the Attorney General's Office go after homeowners who won't grant dune easements along New Jersey's 127 miles of coastline. The state is working to protect the entire coastline in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy.
Most of the holdouts in Ocean City live in the area between 34th Street and 40th Street, part of an area where healthy dune systems helped protect property and where beaches remain relatively wide. Some owners near there are suing over the height of dunes.