Rebuilding After Sandy: Government Assistance At Odds With Private Property Rights

by Joseph GratherNew Jersey Condemnation Law

The following quote is attributed to President Ronald Reagan: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.'”

One example of government assistance post-Hurricane Sandy was the removal of an entire house because it was allegedly in the right of way: Ortley Beach home removed

Well, photographic and video evidence proved that the house was not in the right-of-way, but the State removed and demolished it anyway.

Another example, a local government unit in LBI decided that sand removed from the right-of-way was best deposited on a private property owner’s front yard.  It cost the small homeowner thousands of dollars to remove the sand from his front yard and then the government refused to reimburse the property owner for his removal costs.

Finally, a clear example of government failure can be found in its dune replenishment policy.  In 1999, thirteen years before Sandy struck, the United States Army Corps of Engineers came up with a plan to protect all private property owners from a tidal surge.  That plan was not fully implemented before October 29, 2012.  Part of the problem is that plan implementation was left up to local government, and various local government agencies had varied levels of interest, participation, and results with the plan.

Now, those local politicians are looking for a scapegoat.  Private citizens who happen to own beachfront property are in the cross-hairs.  The politicians have cried foul because of the property owner’s refusal to give-up their private property for the public good and the news agencies have trumpeted the cries almost on a daily basis: today – Tom’s River Homeowners Slow to Give Up Land Needed to Rebuild Protective Dunes; Dec. 2, 2012 – N.J. Shore Towns Near Showdown With Dune-Building Foes.

In mid-December, the Town of Mantoloking wrote to all beach-front property owner demanding that they donate their property by signing an easement before year’s end  (Merry Christmas!).  This practice has been followed by other municipalities in Monmouth and Ocean Counties, as they rush to build and replenish sand dunes before the next big storm hits.

Two of the most fundamental rights found in the bundle of rights known as “property” are the right to “exclusive possession” and the “right to security” defined as “immunity from expropriation.” (“Expropriation” is a synonym for “eminent domain”). See Denise R Johnson, Reflections on the Bundle of RightsVermont Law Review (2007).  Neither of those rights would be honored if the public forced private property owners to donate their property for the public good, i.e. without payment of just compensation.

Ms. Johnson’s article references Lucas v. South Carolina Coast Commission, 505 U.S. 1003 (1992).   That case examined the effect of the State’s adoption of  the Beachfront Management Act in 1988.  The South Carolina legislation created the Coastal Commission to manage its shoreline due to the regularity of hurricane strikes along its barrier islands and shoreline.  The Commission determined that Mr. Lucas, a beachfront property owner, would not be able to build a residence upon his land.  Lucas sued the Commission, and won at the trial level – a jury awarded $1.2 million for the taking, but he ultimately lost in State Court.  The United States Supreme Court reversed, holding “when the owner of real property has been called upon to sacrifice all economically beneficial uses in the name of the common good… he has suffered a taking.”

Perhaps our State should look at South Carolina’s Beachfront Management Act as a guide on how to rebuild after Sandy.  Regardless of whether a State or regional commission is created in New Jersey to manage coastal development, a serious, informed analysis of the issues and possible solutions must be undertaken on a statewide level, rather than continuing a piecemeal, hodgepodge and hurried set of “band-aid” responses.

We questioned the wisdom of the continuing these past practices which have proven problematic at best in our recent Op-Ed in the Asbury Park Press (“Don’t Vilify the Greedy“).  While legislators have recently suggested various “solutions”, unfortunately the pressures of getting the Jersey Shore “ready” for this coming summer is apparently standing in the way of a better, sustainable plan for coastal development which Sandy has given us an opportunity to create.

Originally published by New Jersey Condemnation Law; republished with permission

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