New Jersey Appellate Panel Countenances Beach Easement Condemnations for Federal Funding
A New Jersey appeals court recently upheld the Township of Long Beach’s exercise of eminent domain to acquire beachfront access easements in the consolidated appeal of Twp. of Long Beach v. Tomasi, N.J. Super. App. Div. (per curiam) – the latest chapter in a series of disputes between coastal New Jersey municipalities and owners of beachfront property within those municipalities.
The Township of Long Beach sought federal funding pursuant to the “Sandy Act,” which authorizes the Army Corps of Engineers (“Army Corps”) to protect the New Jersey shoreline through beach replenishment and dune construction projects funded either in whole or in part by the federal government. See Disaster Relief Appropriations Act, 2013 (Sandy Act), Pub. L. No. 113-2, 127 Stat. 4. In order to obtain such federal participation and funding, the township was required to comply with conditions set forth in the Army Corps’ engineering regulations, including the requirement that participating municipalities provide “reasonable public access rights-of-way” to the beach, defined as “approximately every one-half mile or less.” U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, ER 1105-2-100, Planning Guidance Notebook 3-20 (2000); see also N.J.A.C. 7:7-16.9.
As the township’s shoreline did not have the required public access, it resolved to obtain public access easements in various locations to achieve compliance with the Army Corps and NJDEP regulations such that it would be eligible for inclusion in an ongoing shoreline protection project undertaken by those entities. Accordingly, the township passed appropriate resolutions authorizing it to condemn and acquire via eminent domain four public access beach easements, including a ten-foot-wide strip of land along the defendants’ properties. After unsuccessfully negotiating with the defendants to purchase the easements, the township initiated condemnation proceedings in the Superior Court, giving rise to the Tomasi litigation.
In September 2017 the trial court entered summary judgment in favor of the township and held that it had properly exercised its eminent domain power in acquiring the beach easements for public use. The defendants appealed and sought reversal based on their contention that the township was unable to establish either necessity or proper public purpose for the condemnations. More specifically, the defendants argued that reasonable beach access already existed in the township such that there was no necessity to condemn the easements under the Public Trust Doctrine or otherwise; and that the stated impetus for the condemnations, i.e. seeking federal funding, could not constitute a viable public purpose.
On December 20, 2018, the two-judge appellate panel issued its decision affirming the lower court and rejecting both of the defendant-appellants’ primary arguments. The court noted its “limited and deferential” review of municipal exercises of eminent domain power, cited the traditionally broad conceptual scope of public use, and held that the township’s undertaking to protect its shoreline – including conforming to state or federal requirements to obtain project funding – was a proper public use or purpose.
There are several relevant takeaways from the Tomasi decision, though they should be understood with an important caveat. The court resolved the narrow question before it without engaging in a comprehensive or detailed legal analysis and as a result, land use practitioners and municipal personnel should be cautious not to overstate the holding in this brief unpublished opinion. Nevertheless, the Tomasi decision is significant based on its factual distinctions from more traditional beach easement litigations.
Specifically, the easements at issue in Tomasi were for perpendicular access to the beach and ocean rather than for dune construction. Though both dune construction and access easements relate to shore protection, the former directly enable and contribute to such protection, whereas the latter are merely incidental to it. In that sense, the Tomasi easements are arguably less justifiable than dune construction easements in the eminent domain context – and the defendants in Tomasi appeared to base their public purpose-driven arguments on precisely that premise. However, the court evidently did not find the above-described “direct vs. incidental” distinction meaningful and rejected the defendants’ argument, finding that pursuing federal funding for shoreline protection was a sufficient public purpose for eminent domain purposes.
Under the facts of this case, that is a logically defensible outcome, as the township’s acquisition of the access easements was a de-facto prerequisite for constructing dunes and otherwise protecting its shoreline area, per the Army Corps and NJDEP regulations. Accordingly, a possible implication for future cases is that the precise nature of the condemnation easement in question will not necessarily be dispositive, and the focus of a reviewing court’s inquiry instead will be whether such an easement is ultimately necessary to effectuate the contemplated shoreline protection program.
It is unclear if this premise informed the court’s decision in Tomasi. To the extent that it may have, it would be valuable for municipalities, property owners, and land use practitioners to know that the court employs a functional analysis in evaluating public use / purpose in eminent domain cases. Similarly, but conversely, it would be equally valuable for those stakeholders to know that the court did not equate access easements with dune construction easements but rather expanded the scope of eminent domain by permitting condemnation for easements which are merely incidental to shore protection.
Accordingly, the ambiguity in this space following the Tomasi decision is worth monitoring, both in that litigation as the Supreme Court considers whether to hear a (presently unfiled but) likely forthcoming appeal, and in future cases with similar or slightly different facts. Though its implications are presently limited, the Tomasi case clearly stands for the proposition that beach access condemnation easements to obtain federal funding for shore protection projects are permissible exercises of municipal eminent domain power.