As sea levels and storm surge are predicted to rise, fights over sand dunes tear coastal communities apart

In December of last year, The New York Times' Mireya Navarro and Rachel Nuwer reported on how manmade sand dunes had helped minimize damage from Hurricane Sandy's storm surge.

In Bradley Beach, where a 15-foot-high dune barrier of snow fence, Christmas trees and dune grass had been constructed beginning in the 1990s, it worked:

When Hurricane Sandy came, the force of the waves flattened the dunes but left the town’s Boardwalk and the houses just 75 feet from it intact. Plans to restore the Bradley Beach dunes are already under way. The town’s dune-barrier project cost about $10,000 in 1996, Mr. Bianchi said. The town suffered $2 million to $3 million in damage, officials said, while many of its unprotected coastal neighbors were devastated.

“People complained about how high they were, but now they’re not complaining,” Mr. Bianchi said. “They’re praising.”

But in other New Jersey beach towns, not everyone was happy about the sand dunes, even those whose property had been saved by their construction.

In the July 22, 2013 issue of The New Yorker, John Seabrook tells the absurd case of Harvey and Phyllis Karan who sued their coastal town for building a sand dune that obstructed their view of the beach. The Karan's had tried to stop the town from building in the first place, but the town finally resorted to using eminent domain to build the dune in order to protect the whole town. After Superstorm Sandy blew through, the Karan's beachside home was saved, along with the rest of the town, but shockingly that didn't stop the Karan's from pursuing a lawsuit against the town for obstructing their view.

Now, The Times' Kate Zernike reports that the fight over whether to complete a protective dune before the next big storm has torn some communities apart as a few stubborn holdouts refuse to allow the Corp of Engineers to build the dunes on their property:

Towns have tried to shame holdouts into signing easements by posting their names on Web sites and sending them to newspapers. Defiant owners say they have received threatening e-mails 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.

Just like a community, the dune barriers are only as strong as their weakest link:

On the two barrier islands, 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.

I've previously highlighted the fights over erosion control in coastal communities like Nantucket and Malibu. And how cities like Miami and New Orleans potentially doomed, due to rising sea levels and inadequate infrastructure investments.

These fights over individual property versus the public good to not bode well for the future of New Jersey's coastline. Will they be able to learn from past storms and avoid similar destruction?

Tags: Activism | Communities | New Jersey | Oceans

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