A five-year court battle against a protective sand dune project in an area devastated by Superstorm Sandy waged by oceanfront residents of a wealthy Jersey Shore town may be nearing an end following their latest in a long line of court defeats.
Homeowners including a prominent national Republican fundraiser spent $5 million on a rock wall to protect their houses from storm damage — and significant additional money on a protracted legal battle against New Jersey’s construction of a protective sand dune next to it.
They lost at almost every turn.
What could be their final setback came Thursday when an appeals court ruled in favor of the state Department of Environmental Protection, upholding lower court rulings that the state did not act arbitrarily or unreasonably when it used eminent domain proceedings to condemn and seize portions of their beachfront land to build the dune project.
The work was completed last year.
The homeowners include Lawrence Bathgate II, national finance chairman for the Republican National Committee under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. The appeal involved 63 consolidated cases challenging the seizure of parts of their beach for the dune project.
The homeowners “are obviously disappointed with this decision,” said their attorney, Anthony DellaPelle. It is unclear, he said, whether they plan to further appeal the matter, but if they don’t, they plan to press for fair compensation as individual cases come to trial.
They argued that the millions of dollars of their own money that they spent building a rock wall behind their oceanfront homes provided as much or better protection from storm damage as the state’s dune project would.
They also claimed the state acted in bad faith in seizing the land without offering fair compensation for it, and noted that the state altered its dune plan in other places along the 127-mile coastline but refused to do it in Bay Head.
Thursday’s ruling upheld the environmental department’s actions and could mark the end of a costly, drawn-out legal battle that began under the administration of former Gov. Chris Christie, who was seeking the Republican presidential nomination at the time.
Christie repeatedly called Bay Head residents “selfish” and at one point urged people to knock on the doors of oceanfront homeowners there and ask why they were standing in the way of protection for the entire community. (Christie has since bought a vacation house across from the beach in Bay Head.)
The Bay Head residents claimed the action was an abuse of private property rights and a waste of state and federal money, arguing that their privately built wall made building a sand dune unnecessary.
In its ruling Thursday, the court found that the benefits of the wall mostly affected private homeowners and not the community at large, and noted that many Bay Head homes suffered damage during Superstorm Sandy when waves crashed over the top of the rock wall, which had been covered by sand before the storm.
The residents also cited their decadeslong private maintenance of the rock wall and the sand near it. They hire contractors to push sand up on top of the wall as frequently as three times a year, and worried that they would no longer be permitted to do so after the dune was built.
But the state said they would continue to be permitted to do so, provided they did not move sand around unnecessarily.