A court ruling that upheld a $375,000 judgment for oceanfront homeowners in an eminent domain dispute could jeopardize beach replenishment projects on one of New Jersey's most vulnerable pieces of land, an attorney involved in the case said Tuesday.
The appellate ruling Monday upheld the monetary award to a couple in Harvey Cedars on Long Beach Island, site of a $22 million beach replenishment project aimed at minimizing storm damage.
Harvey and Phyllis Karan had argued during the trial last year that a 22-foot dune built on their property obliterated their ocean view and lowered the value of their $1.9 million property by $500,000. An expert for the town testified that the couple should be compensated $300 because they were benefiting from the protection afforded by the dune.
Attorney Lawrence Shapiro, representing Harvey Cedars, argued unsuccessfully that the jury should have heard testimony that the Karans received special benefits from the beach replenishment not enjoyed by other homeowners that would have mitigated the loss in property value and lowered the amount of any judgment.
Shapiro said the ruling could have a chilling effect on future beach replenishment projects undertaken by the Army Corps of Engineers.
"My understanding is they are going to have a hard time having federally sponsored projects in NJ because the courts aren't allowing juries to hear evidence of the benefits of these projects which would be an offset to the alleged damage caused by the projects," he said. "In our perspective, the jury is getting this case with one eye closed."
Several other disputes over beach replenishment in Harvey Cedars were settled out of court, and one case that went to trial ended in a jury judgment for the homeowner for less money than the Karans received, Shapiro said.
Peter Wegener, an attorney who represented the Karans at the trial, said the law requires just compensation for affected homeowners.
"We're not saying the government can't take property for the purpose of developing public projects," he said. "There's a place for eminent domain, and beach replenishment is a good project. All we're saying is that you have to take into consideration the financial damage that you're doing to the people whose property you're taking."
Shapiro said the town has three weeks to decide whether to petition the state Supreme Court to hear the case.
"It's an important enough issue," he said. "The question now is what's going to happen in the other towns in Long Beach Island. No town down there can afford, in light of these rulings, to commence eminent domain if a property owner is holding out for money."