Having narrowly survived Sandy with their oceanfront home intact, Nicole and Joseph Stefano watched eagerly as a project to widen the beaches and build protective sand dunes inched closer and closer to their house.
When Nicole tried to find out when it would get to her street, she was told it wouldn't. The project stopped at 22nd Street, leaving out Surf City's three northernmost streets from work designed to protect against catastrophic storms like Sandy.
"We were shocked," Nicole Stefano said. "They're stopping almost at our doorstep."
The reason: A handful of holdouts refused to sign easements six years ago when a prior beach replenishment project was done. Because they wouldn't give the government permission to access a narrow strip of their land to build the project, their streets — 23rd through 25th streets — were left out of the original work. They also can't legally be included in this year's work, which is restricted to a repair of what was originally put there in 2007.
It's the latest manifestation of a battle that has been fought along the Jersey shore for years — pitting oceanfront homeowners against the wider community at large — and taken on new urgency after last year's mega-storm.
On Monday, the New Jersey Supreme Court threw out a $375,000 award to an elderly couple who sued over the ocean views they lost when a protective dune was built behind their home in Harvey Cedars, a few miles north of Surf City. The court ordered a new trial at which the protective benefits of a dune would be considered along with its harm to the ocean views when calculating the true market value of the property.
Mantoloking, the Jersey shore town hit hardest by the storm, recently posted the names of five homeowners still refusing to sign easements and announced plans to sue them. But even that has failed to get them to sign, borough spokesman Chris Nelson said. Court action could begin by the end of the month, he said.
Nicole Stefano can't believe a legal technicality is ending the project and leaving a gap in the shoreline's protection.
"It's crazy," she said. "They have everything right here, right now: all the machinery, all the heavy equipment, and they're going to stop and pack it up and take it away?"
That's exactly what happened this week. Long lengths of pipe used to pump sand ashore from the ocean bed have been dismantled and laid on the sand just south of the Stefanos' house.
The last three streets can't legally be added to the work without new funding from Congress, said Ed Voigt, a spokesman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
"We're only doing work to the original contract," he said. "If we don't have easements in a particular area, we can't do the work."
The Corps submitted a funding request to Congress in May for parts of Long Beach Island that were not part of the original 2007 project, but the request has yet to be approved. That means the three Surf City streets shouldn't expect to be added to the project until next year at the earliest, Voigt said.
The Stefanos and their neighbors across the street, Mike and Carol McCarty, signed easements.
Nevertheless, just after the October storm, someone who assumed the family hadn't signed an easement drove to their street to gloat about the $25,000 in damage to the McCartys' home.
"A guy was standing right outside our house, and he asked, 'Is this your house?'" Carol McCarty said. Told that it was, the man replied, "You got just what you deserved!"
Surf City Councilman Peter Hartney said the problem could have been avoided had the oceanfront owners in that area signed their easements in 2007.
"If they had signed back then, all of this would have been done in the original project," he said.
So while most of the town has a 22-foot dune and 300 to 400 feet of widened beach between it and the ocean, the Stefanos' small corner of town has only a flat beach and a man-made sand pile pushed up by bulldozers as a last-ditch emergency protection to get it through this year's summer and fall hurricane season, and the winter to follow.
"We were extremely fortunate that our neighborhood only suffered minor damage in comparison to so many others, but we are terrified as to what will happen during the next storm," Joseph Stefano said. "All we can do now is pray that logic and common sense will prevail before Mother Nature strikes again."