The ocean at sunset on a September beach is a beguiling liar; a long flat horizon empty now of sails and ships and fishing boats, running north and south as far as you can see. Fluffy white clouds float against a clean blue sky. At the shoreline a gentle surf, hardly ankle-high, lulls you almost to sleep at the moment of low tide. Now and then a little wave bolder than its mates runs up a bit farther on to the wet sand, making the sandpipers flutter and scurry and scatter, dipping their heads to nibble at tinier creatures in the sand, then hurrying away from the water, their quick feet moving them almost as fast as their wings when they fly, then back again when the wave recedes.
Tracks crisscross the drier part of the beach, in the soft sand where four-wheel drivers like myself came at earlier and higher tides to claim their shares of the day’s beauty.
It’s easy to see how one can fall under the seductive spell of the ocean at ebb on such a day.
But I am an old ex-lifeguard on these shores and have seen the ocean’s other moods; howling winds and hurricanes, slashing rains and raging storm surges pounding day after day until the lesser dunes are gone and nothing separates the flooding bay from the angry ocean except the debris of island homes made vulnerable by the foolish selfishness of those who treasure their first-floor views more than their neighbors’ safety.
There is a struggle going on along the Jersey shore, between officials trying to build up dozens of miles of dune lines to a protective height and those affluent homeowners convinced in their self-righteousness that their property rights are so absolute that they trump public safety and common sense.
It is an ancient struggle, a question of what the law calls “easements,’ the necessary subordination of your right to control your property to the rights of the community to infringe on your land for the common good. In England they fight over centuries-old footpaths; in the American West they fight over water rights; on the long barrier islands of the Jersey Coast, we fight over sand dunes. At heart it is, as always, a balancing act between the one and the many. This is the business of courts and politicians, this careful calibration of your rights versus our rights, of your economic muscle versus our political clout.
The struggle has turned neighbor against neighbor up and down the coast. Political leaders have tried persuasion and even the tactics of shame in their efforts to get the holdouts to sign such easements. It’s hard for anyone brought up to respect private property to lightly dismiss the rights of owners. Communism and other totalitarian theories that deny man’s fundamental rights to acquire and preserve private property are the enemies of free folk everywhere.
But that same deceptively beautiful ocean of today packs more wallop, come the storm, than all the elections and court decisions combined. Ocean storms do not have to weigh things to any degree of nicety, nor keep an eye on the political calendar. And we hardly need reminding that bumper sticker slogans like “stronger than the storm” don’t stop storm surges. For that, you need dunes high enough to hold back the tides of a week of relentless attack, and still be ready for the next assault.
It’s time for the politicians and the courts to put an end to the shenanigans of those beachfront owners who willfully set themselves against the welfare of the whole community. The signing of legal easements should not be all that voluntary a matter. Condemnation is a legal remedy designed to protect the public while providing due process and a fair price to property owners, and there should be no hesitation on the part of governing bodies to use it, and use it now before our oceanfront towns become casualties of the foolishness of the few.
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