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A room with no view: Homeowners back in court over dune project p4

We are finishing up our discussion of a court case that is not from Maryland but that easily could have been. A town on a barrier island had the foresight to contract with the Army Corps of Engineers on a project to increase the height of dunes and the depth of beaches, regardless of whether the beaches were public or private.

As should be the case in any eminent domain taking, the town offered to compensate the property owners for the land acquired for the project. The town and the owners of one home disagreed on the value of the taking. The dispute did not turn on the value of the property taken but, rather, on the value of the view of the beach and water that the higher dunes blocked.

The trial court had not allowed testimony from the town's expert that said the dune and beach project had actually increased the value of the home. The court agreed with the homeowners that the project had conferred a "general benefit" to the entire community. The appeals court upheld that decision.

In July, the New Jersey Supreme Court granted the town a new trial, ruling that the expert testimony was, in fact, admissible. In an eminent domain case, the court said, the determination of appropriate compensation must include "all relevant, reasonably calculable, and non-conjectural factors that either decrease or increase the value of the remaining property." Without the expert testimony, the jury did not have all of the information necessary to calculate the homeowners' "true loss."

As for the "general benefit" argument, the court responded that the homeowners' waterfront property actually reaped more benefits from the project than properties farther inland. A storm would hit their home harder, and without the dune the risk of serious damage or dsctruction was greatly increased.

In the end, the decision seems to say, the property owners could have a full view of the water from the ruins of their home or a partial view of the ocean from the comfort of their living room. Just compensation must take all factors, good and bad, into account, and that includes benefits that will accrue over time.

The date for the new trial has not been set.

Source: Courthouse News Service, "Dune Project Award Sent Back for Recalculation," Chris Fry, July 10, 2013