New Jersey Beach Replenishment Saga Continues, This Time in Sea Bright

by Anthony F. Della Pelle / New Jersey Condemnation Law

A state appellate court has ruled that a private beach club in Sea Bright, New Jersey, has to open its entire beach to non-members.  The decision in Chiesa v. D. Lobi Enterprises, Inc., Docket No. 6070-09T3 (September 28, 2012) (opinion available here) is the latest chapter in a story that has been unfolding for nearly 20 years.  In 1993 the State commenced a major beach replenishment project along the shoreline in Sea Bright.  The State had acquired from Sea Bright Beach Club (the Club) a temporary construction Easement over the Club’s property to undertake the beach replenishment project.  The Club also granted “a continuing easement for the purpose of conducting periodic beach nourishment” and “a perpetual easement for a right of limited public access” limited to pedestrian right of transit and fishing, the latter activity subject to reasonable restrictions by the Club.

It was the “limited” public access that was at issue in the Sea Bright litigation.  Relying on the decision of the State Supreme Court in Raleigh Avenue Beach Ass’n v. Atlantis Beach Club, Inc., 185 N.J. 40 (2005), which held that upland sand beach owned by a private club is required to be made available to the public under the public trust doctrine, the State filed a complaint against nine beach clubs, including the Club, and the Borough of Sea Bright seeking to reform the 1993 agreement regarding limited public access.  A trial court judge concluded the 1993 agreement was void.  The Club appealed, but the appellate court agreed with the trial court judge and held that the provision granting limited public access to the dry upland beach area controlled by the Club is contrary to public interest and unenforceable.

In addition to public access, the Sea Bright case raises an interesting issue of whether such beach replenishment projects constitute a special benefit to oceanfront property owners.  Some of these projects, like those on Long Beach Island, require the acquisition of private property.  Municipalities charged with acquiring those private property interests are arguing that the beach replenishment projects provide a special benefit to the property owners and therefore are offering only nominal compensation to the homeowners.  Of course, our State and federal Constitutions require payment of “just compensation” for the taking of private property.  In one such case in Harvey Cedars, where the town offered the property owner $300 for an easement needed for a dune replenishment project, a jury awarded the owner $375,000 as just compensation.

While the Sea Bright case did not involve condemnation, it did address the issues of public benefit.  The question remains whether the State and local governments will seek to expand this ruling to demonstrate that such projects not only provide a benefit the public at large, but confer a special benefit to owners of oceanfront property in which case the government may justify taking private property interests without having to pay for same.

Clearly a beach replenishment project provides a public benefit.  And while the project may, in certain instances, provide a benefit to an owner of an oceanfront property, that should not result in the deprivation of just compensation where that property owner suffers the loss of property or valuable ocean views as a result of the project.

Whether the government seeks to expand the holding of the Sea Bright case remains to be seen.  But as always, we will continue to watch these developments closely and keep you posted.

See our previous posts on condemnation cases related to beach replenishment projects:

Originally published by New Jersey Condemnation Law; republished with permission

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