Thursday, January 3, 2013

Drowning in Freedom

The coastal towns of New Jersey have a terrifying quagmire in local government.  They've identified a problem.  They've identified a solution to that problem.  But they do not have the legal power to do anything about it, and neither does anybody else.

Sand dunes have been proven to lessen the impact of storm surges on inland homes, restaurants, and other structures.  It holds back inches, and sometimes feet, of water that would otherwise make a home inhabitable.  The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has sought to place dunes along the entirety of the New Jersey shoreline, but requires local governments to first obtain easements from individual property owners, allowing these dunes to be built. 

So far, the results have not been good.

When you buy a million-dollar beachfront home, you are buying a slice of "the good life".  While you don't own the beach, it is probably hard not to think you do.  Standing in your backyard, having nothing between you and miles of ocean, you feel like a king.

But the "do-gooder government" wants to mess that up with dunes.  This has been a cold war for decades, but Sandy has brought the issue home with devastating results.  The political pressure is also tremendous, with inland homeowners blaming  shore-front houses for the destruction wrought within.

And here's where things get tight.  Local governments are tasked with "taking" land to build dunes, but do not have the money to afford it.  Tens of thousands of beachfront land-owners are all asking for "what's right" (fair market value) for strips of land that, per property, have been valued over $200,000.  They protest that this is "not about money", it is about the Constitution!  Court battles have been fought, and lost, by County governments who cannot leverage the need of the collective over the protections afforded to the individual.  Even if the exercise of individual's right to just compensation will endanger, and possibly work to kill, their neighbors.

If you are sensing some ambivalence here, your sense is spot on.  You can't drive down the blocks along Point Pleasant, NJ, see mounds of sand overflowing out of people's garages, consider it preventable, and think "this is the cost of freedom."  You just can't make sense of that in your head.  But there needs to be some stiff boundary between the immense power of government and the weak protest of the individual, right?  If we don't, who watches the watchmen?  Who decides when the government is correctly abridging the right of the individual for the benefit of the collective?  Would that standard be met for a park?  Jungle gym? Parking lot?

What drew me to this story was the swirling focus on local government.  It simultaneously has all the responsibility and none of the power.  I wonder whether a County Commissioner from Ocean County proposing a $1 per $100 tax increase to help pay beachfront property owners for dune easements would stand a chance.  And if not, we get the government we deserve, right?

Have a great Thursday doing what you love.