Toms River Mayor Says He May Use Eminent Domain to Get Protective Sand Dunes

Battles between some homeowners and municipalities have heated up at the Jersey Shore, including Toms River where Mayor Thomas Kelaher has called out one property owner for refusing to sign easements to allow the building of dunes. Kelaher told NJ Today Managing Editor Mike Schneider that he is considering using eminent domain to get the dunes built to protect residents during future storms.

Kelaher has called out John McDonough for refusing to sign an agreement. “I feel compelled because he’s one of the most obstinate objectors to signing a waiver to let us build dunes on the beach. He represents about 25 percent of the area that has not agreed to let us build dunes,” the mayor said. “And it’s not fair to all of his tenants who live in the developments that are behind his beach.”

The mayor explained that McDonough’s family built a development around the time of the Korean War and rented long-term leases to the bungalows, but retained title to the beach. “Their own beach associations, therefore, do not have the authority to sign a waiver and only he has the authority. So I just thought to start with I’m going to put him on the spot and if that doesn’t work we’ll do something else,” Kelaher said.

McDonough had no comment when reached by NJ Today, but previously spoke to The Star-Ledger about his reasons for refusing to sign, which include not wanting to give his private property to the government. Kelaher strongly disagrees with that argument.

“There’s a public safety factor involved. We’re not asking for him to give over his property. We just want to have the right to go on the beach and build dunes. It doesn’t make a damn bit of sense,” Kelaher said. “We’re gonna build them. It’s not gonna cost him anything. We can be reimbursed by FEMA. I have not yet heard a valid reason why we shouldn’t do that.”

The mayor said he could use eminent domain to build the dunes, but he’s concerned about a case from Harvey Cedars where the municipality is contesting a jury’s decision to award $375,000 to a homeowner whose view was obstructed by protective sand dunes. The state Supreme Court began hearing arguments in the case Monday.

Kelaher said the outcome of the case, which the attorney general has asked be expedited, could have an impact on his decision to use eminent domain. “I’d have to see the opinion, but if it’s favorable, that’s one of the options that I would certainly exercise,” he said.

He explained that while the dunes are temporary, the Army Corps of Engineers will then build dunes from the Manasquan Inlet south and replenish the beach about the size of half a football field.

“For the people who say they wouldn’t be able to see over the dunes, they’re in the flood map zone that’s going to require them to go up at least 16 feet. They’d be up over the top of the dunes anyway, so I have not to this minute heard any valid excuse not to do it,” Kelaher said.

The recovery process in Toms River continues from Hurricane Sandy. “We had at least 10,000 homes damaged, either flooded or destroyed or a combination of both,” Kelaher said. He explained that FEMA has agreed to reimburse the municipality for the demolition of homes on private property.

“Up until just recently they always felt that was the responsibility of the individual homeowner and they wouldn’t reimburse us,” Kelaher said. “We finally convinced them that it’s not fair. We’ve got homes, for example in Ortley Beach, where two or three other houses floated down onto their property and it’s really not fair for somebody to have to pay to have three homes demolished. We went out to bid, they authorized us, they’re gonna reimburse us. And 8 o’clock tomorrow morning, Orley Beach, we start the demolition.”