Seventeen oceanfront homeowners are challenging New Jersey's right to use eminent domain to seize strips of their sand for a protective dune project, calling it a land grab.

Sand Dunes
Christopher Furlong, Getty Images

The court filings take dead aim at the main tool New Jersey is using to try to erect dunes along most of its 127-mile coastline more than three years after Superstorm Sandy obliterated portions of the shore. The filings came days before a major winter storm was due to hit the area with severe coastal flooding and potentially record-setting storm surges likely to cause property damage.

The complaints from beachfront owners in Point Pleasant Beach, Brick and Mantoloking say the state Department of Environmental Protection does not have the right to take private property.

"The government's power of eminent domain is an extreme power that must be carefully and property used because of the ramifications," said Anthony DellaPelle, one of the lawyers for the homeowners. "Private property rights are fundamental rights protected by the Constitution's Bill of Rights."

The plaintiffs said the DEP is using the beach project as a "smoke screen" to take control of private beaches up and down the coast, without the underlying legal authority to do so.

The DEP and the state attorney general's office, which is handling the land condemnation cases, declined to comment.

In the past, Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican presidential candidate, and DEP officials have spoken of the need for the dunes to protect entire coastal communities, not just those who live directly on the beach. They note that communities protected by dunes generally fared much better during Superstorm Sandy than those without them.

The homeowners are part of a coastal rebellion going on in several pockets of the Jersey shore where residents have wrestled the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project to a draw.

Margate took the state to court and has thus far prevented construction of dunes in the seaside town just outside Atlantic City; the town maintains its wooden bulkheads are sufficient to protect against major storms. Bay Head homeowners also are suing, claiming that the $5 million of their own money they spent on a rock wall behind their homes will work better than dunes. The privately owned Jenkinson's beach is in settlement talks with the state over a lawsuit it brought challenging the dune project.

The homeowners object to government taking private property. They worry about who will be required -- or allowed -- to maintain the beaches once dunes are built on them, and still others fear the eventual construction of boardwalks, public restrooms and even Ferris wheels near their homes. The state and federal governments say they have no such plans.

Others are upset about losing prized oceanfront views. In a Long Beach Island case in 2013, the state Supreme Court ruled that judges must take into account the storm-protection benefits that dunes add to an oceanfront property, not just the decreased value from lost views. The couple at the heart of that case eventually accepted a $1 settlement after initially being awarded $375,000.

So far, the state has filed condemnation cases against 86 properties.

The court filings also reveal the vast gulf between what the property owners and the state think the land is worth.

A Mantoloking homeowner says the land the DEP wants to take from him is worth $3.1 million. The state has offered $500 for it.

The cases will be heard next month.

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