DAVID GREENE, HOST:
And now to a big battle in the state of New Jersey over sand dunes. When Superstorm Sandy hit, a patchwork of engineered dunes protected some homes and businesses from getting hit even harder. After the storm, Governor Chris Christie ordered these dunes along the coastline to be finished. Property owners resisted. They feared losing their ocean views or their claims on beachfront land. Many property owners have since given in. Here's Carolyn Beeler from member station WHYY.
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CAROLYN BEELER, BYLINE: Dune building started this month on Long Beach Island, a skinny piece of land connected to mainland New Jersey by a bridge. Giant dredging boats far off the coast are sucking up sand from the bottom of the ocean where it's then pumped to the wide, sandy beach. Earthmoving machines push it into tall hills in front of shorefront homes. Eventually, long grasses will be planted to slow erosion. Angelo Giafaglione watches the process with approval.
ANGELO GIAFAGLIONE: We need the dunes, build them up, make the beach bigger.
BEELER: For nearly a decade in the tiny borough of Ship Bottom, in-land residents like Giafaglione have been pitted against ocean-front property owners who refused to allow dunes to be built on their property.
GIAFAGLIONE: I feel they were stupid. You know, you got to think of everybody else. You can't just think of yourself, you know? So I'm glad that this is getting done now.
BEELER: Among the last holdouts in the area were Dorothy and Ted Jedziniak. They finally give their permission in June in part because the state offered assurances that a boardwalk and bathrooms wouldn't be built on their quiet beachfront property.
DOROTHY JEDZINIAK: OK, we give in. We're not going to fight anymore just so long as the home rule and owning property is respected, and they assured us it was, so that's it.
BEELER: Since 2013, state and local officials have convinced property owners like the Jedziniaks to sign nearly 2,500 easements that allow the Army Corps of Engineers to build dunes on private land; but today, nearly four hundred of those easements are still outstanding.
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BEELER: Most of those outstanding easements are in northern Ocean County.
JAN H. BROWN: We prefer to take care of our problems with our own money as opposed to wasting taxpayer money.
BEELER: That's Thatcher Brown who's standing in front of his house on a dune he rebuilt after Sandy.
BROWN: We, along with 14 neighbors - there were 15 of us - put in a rock revetment, and we then covered those rocks with several feet of sand, and we covered the sand with dune grass.
BEELER: The Army Corps of Engineers says one uniform dune system will protect the shore better than a piecemeal one built by individuals and towns, but Brown and his neighbors oppose signing easements they see as transferring parts of their private land to the public forever.
BROWN: The government wants to take a perpetual interest in our beaches, which are privately owned even though we allow the public on them.
BEELER: Gov. Christie has repeatedly said he's not trying to turn private beaches into public attractions, but many holdouts are distrustful. Last month, New Jersey Commissioner of Environmental Protection Bob Martin said the state would take Brown and his Bay Head neighbors to court over the issue.
BOB MARTIN: Out of 124 easements we need, all we have is two. We've got a lot of people that are being very selfish right now.
BEELER: The state attorney general office's expects to start filing for imminent domain or the compulsory public acquisition of private land within the next several weeks. As they watch how legal challenges elsewhere on the shore progress, Bay Head residents are already planning their defense strategy. They say it may include pushing for millions of dollars of compensation they don't think New Jersey has in its budget. For NPR News, I'm Caroline Beeler.
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