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NJ Takes Nuclear Option on Dune Project

TRENTON, N.J. (CN) - With some Jersey Shore homeowners resisting government efforts to beef up sand dunes decimated by Hurricane Sandy, Gov. Chris Christie is taking the holdouts to court.

The Christie administration filed more than two dozen eminent domain lawsuits Thursday to set up easements on beachfront property in Brick Township, Long Beach Island and Absecon Island so that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers can begin constructing protective dunes.

Dunes and a 3.5-mile steel sheet revetment are necessary to help mitigate damage from future hurricanes and storms, experts say.

Of the 28 eminent-domain actions filed against beachfront property owners, seven involve property in Brick, four in Absecon Island, and 17 in Long Beach Island.

The project is estimated to cost nearly $130 million and is expected to be completed in spring 2016.

"It is disappointing that we need to go through such considerable legal efforts to obtain easements from holdouts who continue to delay our efforts to safeguard our coast," Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Bob Martin said in a statement.

Ocean County was among the hardest-hit when Sandy tore up the Eastern Seaboard in October 2012. More than 40,000 of the 72,000 homes affected during the hurricane were in Ocean County, according to estimates by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Ocean County also remains one of the biggest holdouts in granting easements to the state. In total, the state still requires 124 additional easements from property owners in Ocean County, most of which are in Bay Head and Point Pleasant Beach.

New Jersey Acting Attorney General John Hoffman lauded property owners who had already "unselfishly volunteered their easements in service of the greater good," calling the coastline dune project "vital to safeguarding our communities against certain natural disasters."

Several towns meanwhile have filed suit against the state, claiming existing bulkheads and rock walls are sufficient, and the construction is unnecessarily marring property.

The state has already completed similar dune projects elsewhere on the Jersey Shore in the past few months, including a $57 million project in Ocean City and a nearly $40 million project in Monmouth County.

Eminent-domain rules require governments to pay fair-market value for easements claimed in the process, but the exact amounts can become fuzzy.

A 2013 New Jersey Supreme Court ruling has given the state ammo in dealing with holdout owners, requiring the state to pay owners in exchange for easements but reducing the total amount required. In that case, property owners in Long Beach Island saw their easement compensation reduced from $375,000 to $1.

Brick's mayor was not available for comment.

Assemblyman John McKeon, one of the seven property owners in Brick named in the lawsuit, said in a statement that he is working with DEP to clarify the precise terms of the easement.

McKeon, a Democrat representing parts of Essex and Morris counties, had fought with the state in 2013 regarding the dune project, complaining at the time of the placement of the reinforced dunes at his beachfront house.

"My family and I are not looking for one penny, nor anything other than to assure that there will be an integrated dune system," McKeon said in a statement. "Our concern has always been about where the dune is going to be sited and whether we would be permitted to maintain it on a going-forward basis."

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