Sandy-hit towns wrestle with eminent-domain choice

September 1, 2014 - 2:05 PM
Private Beaches-Public Access

In this Aug. 26, 2014 photo, a sea wall separates Asharoken Village, N.Y. from Long Island Sound. The wall was washed over during Superstorm Sandy in October 2012, causing erosion and and taking down power lines. Asharoken can accept federal aid to build a dune and create public access to its beach for the first time in nearly 90-year history. Or it can reject aid, retain its private beach and allow erosion and other issues to worsen. (AP Photo/Emily Dooley)

ASHAROKEN, N.Y. (AP) — On a tiny spit of land off Long Island, the wealthy village of Asharoken faces a dilemma borne of Superstorm Sandy.

Either it accepts millions of dollars in federal aid to build a protective sand dune and for the first time in its nearly 90-year existence allows the public to use its beach or it rejects the aid and retains its privacy, potentially worsening an erosion problem that saw part of its main road washed out and power lines toppled during the October 2012 storm.

But some of the 600-plus residents in the village of million-dollar homes worry opening up the area could lead to traffic problems, trespassing and more garbage.

"I think privacy, pollution and safety, these are the three main concerns," resident Asenneth Elsin said. "I don't have a problem sharing, but unfortunately there will be people not following the rules."

Asharoken is just one place where the tussle among coastal protection, property rights, public access and federal funding is playing out in New York and New Jersey, both hit hard by the storm.

Much of the damage was caused by storm surge, which flooded or destroyed homes and washed out boardwalks. In some places, such as Surf City on Long Beach Island in New Jersey, dunes held off serious damage while neighboring communities without such protection were nearly wiped out.

Now there's a movement afoot to build or replenish dunes before the next storm. After Sandy, Congress granted the Army Corps $5.3 billion to study damaged areas and for projects to build dunes, enlarge beaches and install structures to slow sand movement.

Before work can begin, though, property owners must sign agreements allowing access to parts of their property for eternity. And to get the federal funding, communities must agree to provide public routes to the funded beaches.

If they decide to keep the beaches to themselves, it's either find a way to pay for dunes or risk getting flooded again.

New York and New Jersey officials have said they're committed to seeing the work through, even if it means getting courts involved. They say taking property by eminent domain is a possibility.

Asharoken lies between Long Island Sound and a harbor on the narrowest part of a peninsula connecting mainland Long Island with the community of Eaton's Neck at the tip. It has about 300 homes. Residents who don't live on the water can buy beach-only lots, and they leave kayaks, patio sets, umbrellas and more on the property.

The Corps is studying an estimated $30 million plan to build a dune and berm and enlarge the beach. In a letter to residents, Asharoken Mayor Greg Letica said if the village didn't accept the federal funding it would cost homeowners up to $100,000 apiece to restore the beach.

If the Corps project moves forward, Asharoken may have to take property to create public beach access and compensate homeowners. The problem: Because of its small population, it has an annual budget of just over $2 million, so Letica is asking officials to ease the public access requirement.

Asharoken is among several places in New York where the Corps is studying or building dunes.

Some structures may be demolished on Fire Island, a barrier island for Long Island that's dotted with beachside communities and home to a national seashore, to make way for a project.

Breezy Point, a cooperative on Queens' Rockaway Peninsula that flooded and burned during Sandy, was given a $1.2 million grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to study building a $57 million dune with a sea wall.

In New Jersey, 11 Corps projects are planned, but it hasn't gotten all homeowners to sign easements.

"We're looking to make our shores more resilient," said Bob Considine, a spokesman for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. "We're doing this for the good of the entire shore and New Jersey."

A 14-mile dune project from Manasquan Inlet to Barnegat Inlet has some of the most holdouts, with the boroughs of Bay Head and Point Pleasant Beach accounting for nearly 200.

In Point Pleasant Beach, much of the boardwalk and beach are privately owned to the mean high-water mark, and several large businesses operate amusements there.

Jenkinson's Boardwalk, the largest beachfront property owner, said building a dune would erase beach areas where volleyball, movies, weddings and other events are held. The owners said they don't believe a dune would stop flooding because properties behind Jenkinson's weren't flooded by Sandy's surge.

The borough has approved granting an easement on property it owns, but 69 other property owners haven't.

"I understand their concerns, and in a perfect world we wouldn't do this," Mayor Vincent Barrella said. "But we don't have that. We live in a post-Sandy world."

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Emily C. Dooley, a Newsday reporter on leave, is studying community resilience issues, the ability of communities to bounce back from various shocks, as part of a nine-month fellowship at the AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, which joins NORC's independent research and AP journalism. The fellowship is funded by the Rockefeller Foundation.