A plan by state officials in New Jersey to use eminent domain to build sand dunes on privately owned, oceanfront beaches is encountering stiff resistance from affected property owners, who see the action as nothing less than a government land grab.

New Jersey’s 127-mile coastline is dotted with private beaches. The area was hit hard by Hurricane Sandy in October 2012, and since then the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have determined that sand dunes will limit the damage wrought by future storms. But seventeen oceanfront property owners are suing the state, arguing that the DEP lacks the legal right to use eminent domain to seize beachfront property for the proposed sand dune project.

“Protected by the Constitution’s Bill of Rights”

“The government’s power of eminent domain is is an extreme power that must be Eminent domain grabcarefully and properly used because of the ramifications,” Anthony Dellapelle, one of the lawyers for the homeowners told the Associated Press. “Private property rights are fundamental rights protected by the Constitution’s Bill of Rights.”

Up and down the Jersey shore – in places like Mantoloking, Brick, Margate, Bay Head, Jenkinson’s Beach, Point Pleasant Beach, and Long Beach Island – oceanfront property owners see the state’s sand-dune plan as a pretext to seize more private land. Once the land is owned by the state, they fear, there will be nothing to stop construction of boardwalks, public rest rooms, and even Ferris wheels near their homes. Furthermore, property values, which are linked to oceanfront views, will suffer accordingly. And lower property values will result in less revenue for cash-strapped local governments, they add.

For their part, Garden State officials say sand dunes offer coastal communities the best protection against flooding and insist on using eminent domain to bring the privately owned beaches under their control. Local property owners dispute this, pointing out that wooden bulk heads and rock walls – both financed by oceanfront homeowners — are more effective than sand dunes.

Multiple Suits Filed

Opponents of eminent domain have already had some success in the courtroom. The Washington Times (Jan. 22) reports that plaintiffs in Margate, just outside of Atlantic City, have prevented construction of sand dunes in their seaside community. Similarly, residents of privately owned Jenkinson’s Beach have tied up the DEP in court and are now in settlement talks with the state. So far, the state has filed condemnation cases against 86 oceanfront properties.

Eminent domain is a power tool; it allows for the taking, albeit with compensation, for what is said to be for the public good. It enabled the construction of the Interstate Highway System, but it has also been used by government to favor one private interest over another. No one wants to limit the damaged caused by storms coming from the Atlantic more than oceanfront property owners. Along the Jersey shore, homeowners are willing to spend their own money to protect their homes from whatever Mother Nature serves up, and they are right to stand up to bullies in Trenton.