Author: Marc Poirier

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Partial Taking in the Dunes of New Jersey: The Harvey Cedars Case

This past July, the New Jersey Supreme Court handed down Borough of Harvey Cedars v. Karan, 70 A.3d 524 (2013). In one sense this is a technical case about the rules of just compensation for a partial taking. The New Jersey Supreme Court clarified the distinction between “special benefits,” which can be offset against the compensation owed for a partial taking, and “general benefits,” which cannot. Where a dune restoration project would provide protection to a home in immediate proximity to the shore, if the value of that protection can be determined, it should be deducted from the compensation owed, even though the dune provides flood protection of the same kind—but in significantly less degree–to rows of houses further back from the ocean. The New Jersey Supreme Court determined that an evidentiary ruling excluding evidence of the benefit was erroneous as a matter of law, and remanded for a new trial. All five Justices participating in the opinion agreed.

The case is of more general interest because the public project involved concerned construction of a dune barrier on private property along New Jersey’s barrier islands. It’s a disaster law and climate change case. Dune projects have been underway here for some time–this one began in 2008–with the United States Corps of Engineers doing the heavy lifting, state and municipalities cooperating and chipping in a smallish part of the cost. All of Long Beach Island is part of a big old beach and dune project. And dune projects have gained special salience after Superstorm Sandy.

In the Borough of Harvey Cedars, on Long Beach Island, dune construction required the cooperation of all 82 beachfront property owners. Sixteen of them declined, forcing the municipality to begin condemnation proceedings for a strip of each recalcitrant property owner’s land. In this particular case, the Karans refuse to grant a dune easement over about a quarter of their property; the easement included a dune 22 feet high, replacing one 16 feet high. A right of public access came along with the new dune as well. So the Karans wound up with a view of other folks’ beach recreation activities on the higher dune, not the water view they had previously enjoyed. Evidence supporting the argument that the Karans’ $1.9 million home would benefit from the flood protection afforded by the dune to the tune of several hundred thousand dollars was excluded from a jury by the trial court, on the theory that the entire community also benefitted, and that therefore the flood protection was a “general benefit” which could not legally be offset against the compensation owed the Karans. The Karan’s expert had testified that they should receive $500,000 from Harvey Cedars. The Harvey Cedars expert (from the Corps of Engineers) testified that the proper amount of compensation was $300. But he couldn’t point to evidence of benefit from flood protection because it had been excluded. The jury returned a compensation award of $375,000, principally for loss of view. You can do the math and see what this does to the possibility of any dune project. Holdouts galore. No project. Read More

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A Modest Proposal: Install Permanent Blue Lines Physically Along the Coast

There’s been quite a hullaballoo nationally and regionally on this the first anniversary of Superstorm Sandy. Sandy, you will recall, pummeled the coast of New Jersey and New York for days last October, killing an estimated 285 people, destroying or damaging 650,000 homes and 200,000 businesses, leaving 8,600,000 homes and businesses without power, gas, or water, and shutting down New York City’s subway system for days, crippling the city. The estimated cost of Sandy was $65 billion dollars.

Monmouth University held an excellent online symposium about the response to Sandy on October 29, the anniversary of Sandy’s landfall. Here are youtubes of the morning and afternoon sessions.

Among the notable speakers was Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, who directed the national response to hurricanes Katrina and Rita, served as the National Incident Commander in the BP Deepwater Horizon blowout, and was appointed by New York Governor Cuomo to co-chair a task force on New York State’s responses to future weather-related disasters. Another notable was Christine Todd Whitman, former Governor of New Jersey and former Administrator of the United States Environmental Protection Agency. She resigned as I recall over differences with the George W. Bush administration over whether climate change was going to be a serious problem.

A pollster from and institute at Monmouth University reported that only about half the folks who were supposed to evacuate the New Jersey shore did so; and that when polled later, about the same number said they would not evacuate the next time.

And there surely will be a next time. Another speaker suggested that even a four foot sea level rise by 2100, somewhere in the mid-range of credible estimates, would drastically increase the frequency of severe floods. He offered the analogy of a basketball court. Raise the floor a few inches and you get more dunks. Raise the floor a couple of feet and all you get is dunks. Add to that that many major cities are less than five feet above sea level now – among them Hoboken and Atlantic City here in New Jersey – and that spells trouble with a capital T.

And yet there is this persistent insistence on retaking the land, rebuilding bigger and better, standing up to the storm. Read More

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New Jersey Marriage Equality Part II: When Lewis Met Windsor

United States v. Windsor, – U.S. –, 133 S.Ct. 2675 (2013), invalidated the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) on somewhat murky constitutional grounds. It also provided the catalyst for this month’s move to marriage equality under state constitutional law in New Jersey. But it did so in a most curious way.

In Lewis v. Harris, 908 A.2d 196 (N.J. 2006), a unanimous New Jersey Supreme Court had held that same-sex couples could not be denied the equal rights and benefits guaranteed by the New Jersey constitution. However, a four-person majority in Lewis demurred as to whether the state had to allow same-sex couples to marry, allowing the legislature instead to choose to create a new status that would provide the same rights and benefits as marriage, but with a different name. In short order the legislature enacted a Civil Union Act, which became effective in 2007.

From the outset, it was clear to marriage equality advocates that that civil union would not and could not convey the equal rights and benefits that Lewis v. Harris mandated. The New Jersey Civil Union Review Commission held hearings and made extensive findings to that effect, unanimously. But how to persuade either the courts or the legislature to make the move all the way to marriage equality? Both legislative and judicial mechanisms were deployed. As to litigation, there was an initial attempt in 2010 to return the matter directly to the New Jersey Supreme Court, by way of a motion in aid of litigant’s rights filed in Lewis v. Harris. It failed because the court determined, on a 3-3 vote, that an evidentiary record was necessary. 202 N.J. 340 (2010). It is this evidentiary trial process that Windsor short-circuited. Read More

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New Jersey Crosses the Finish Line to Marriage Equality – Maybe

Same-sex marriage became legal in New Jersey at 12:01 am on Monday, October 21. Wedding ceremonies are everywhere. The process may not be over, however; there are tactical decisions yet to be made as to how best to solidify and clarify the win.

It was a roundabout victory, achieved via a Superior Court decision last month, in which Judge Mary Jacobson held that civil union did not satisfy a state constitutional mandate of equal protection established in Lewis v. Harris (N.J. 2006). There followed, on Friday, October 18, a unanimous state Supreme Court ruling denying a motion for stay of Judge Jacobson’s order. So it’s legal for same-sex couples to marry here, but there is no a ruling on the merits by the state Supreme Court. That’s the problem. Read More

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Shame On You! Hand Over That Dune Easement!

This blog post is the second in my series of four this month on coastal land management and disaster. It will be just a bit shorter than the last, and focuses on the efforts of one among several Jersey Shore beach communities, Long Beach Township, in Ocean County, to use shame as an incentive and punishment for beachfront property owners who have refused to negotiate easements necessary for a protective beach and dune restoration project.

First, some background. New Jersey has something like 127 miles of Atlantic Ocean shoreline – barrier islands, marshes, and inlets. All of its length is developed, with few exceptions. This practice of barrier island development goes well back into the 19th century. Long Branch, in Monmouth County (not to be confused with Long Beach), called itself the “home of Presidents”. It became accessible by rail early on, and seven nineteenth-century presidents summered there. One, James Garfield, died there, after he was shot and taken there for what turned out to be some very bad medical treatment.

Apart from the results of a few episodic impulses to preserve (among them Island Beach State Park and the Sandy Hook element of the Gateway National Recreation Area), all the rest of the buildable New Jersey shore is built. And how! There are the more exclusive enclaves, and also towns with beaches that are narrow and crowded and commercial. In most places you have to pay to get onto the beach. To the chagrin of many a first-year property student, there’s a whole case law and scholarly literature about beach access below the mean high tide line and the public trust doctrine, centered on a series of New Jersey cases. More exclusive towns still try various stratagems to exclude outsiders (What, no all day parking? No changing facilities?). Other towns just let outsiders in as daily visitors or weekly renters and take their money.

For protection against storms, much of the Jersey Shore has been reinforced with hard structures such as sea-walls and groins, which project out into the ocean and supposedly prevent sand from migrating down current. Coastal geologists generally consider what has happened in New Jersey a very bad way to manage beaches on barrier islands. It just fosters erosion and imperils structures that shouldn’t have been built there anyway. Beaches gotta move. See, e.g., Wallace Kaufman & Orrin H. Pilkey, Jr., The Beaches Are Moving: The Drowning of America’s Coastline. Read More

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Homeownership, Flood Insurance, and Stupid Land Uses: The Kolbe Decision

First, thanks to Concurring Opinions for inviting me back.  It’s been years.  What took you so long? 

I plan to spend some of my month’s effort here discussing coastal land use and disasters and the law.  In light of Superstorm Sandy and likely future megastorms, and given climate change and sea level rise, I can’t help noting that, whatever is going on with managing CO2 levels at a global scale, one class of disasters results from what I have come to call in conversation (and now in writing) Stupid-A** Land Use Decisions (SALUD).   We build houses in harm’s way.  I’ve written about the folly of allowing homes on the parts of barrier islands that are most likely to flood or wash away, noting in passing the folly of building homes on scenic hillsides subject to rock- and mudslides.  In the news lately, there’s much about the costs of rescuing homes built in forests that are just waiting to catch fire.  At some point, we have to disincent SALUD, or at least insist that the full cost of risk and rescue and rebuilding be reflected in the market cost of building in Stupid-A** places, and let that expense disincent.  It’s very hard to do.  As my own dear New Jersey Governor Chris Christie said after Superstorm Sandy, we will rebuild!

 Which brings me to the case I’m discussing today.  It came down last Friday. The case is Kolbe v. BAC Home Loans Servicing, LP (1st Cir. No. 11-2030, Sept. 27, 2013) (en banc), 2013 WL 5394192.  It is a First Circuit en banc decision, on a 3-3 vote, failing to reverse the District of Massachusetts, which granted a motion to dismiss a putative class action seeking an interpretation of a form mortgage contract provision concerning flood insurance.  Warning, I’m not an expert in all of the doctrinal areas involved, so please forgive if I miss something, but boy, is it interesting. 

The provision in dispute is Covenant 4, a three-sentence paragraph required by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to be included in all single family dwelling mortgage contracts insured by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA).  Covenant 4 was established by a regulation promulgated in 1989 after notice and comment rulemaking.  It allows a lender to require that the homeowner purchase insurance for “any hazards . . . in the amounts and for periods that the Lender requires.”  Covenant 4 also requires the borrower to insure against loss from floods to the extent required by the Secretary of HUD.  HUD requires flood insurance whenever a property is located in a “special flood hazard area,” the most risky category under the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) classification scheme.  HUD requires flood insurance at least equal to the outstanding balance of the mortgage, that is, the lender’s stake in the property, but there is a cap of $250,000.  Thus, as to hazard (but not flood), the lender clearly has authority under Covenant 4 to require further hazard insurance.  But it is, arguably, unclear whether Covenant 4 empowers the lender to require a homeowner to purchase additional flood insurance.  Perhaps the provision of Covenant 4 referring to requirements by HUD insulates the homeowner from lender requirements as to purchasing flood insurance.  Perhaps Covenant 4’s authorization for lenders to require additional hazard insurance includes flood insurance, because floods are a type of hazard.  That’s the interpretation question. Read More

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Bizarro Section 1982 and “civil union” — a thought experiment in unequal names

Suppose that, immediately after the Civil War, instead of 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1862, the Congress had enacted a statute that provided: “All citizens of the United States shall have the same right in every State and Territory, as is enjoyed by white citizens thereof to inherit, purchase, lease, sell, hold and convey real and personal property, except that as to non-whites some other name shall be used instead of ‘property'; and for the interests of non-whites parallel to property, names other than ‘purchase, lease, sell, hold, and convey’ shall be used.”

This bizarro version of 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1982 would cause non-whites constitutional injuries of several types, and would fail to effectuate an underlying constitutional purpose of equality.  We might enumerate, at a minimum, the following types of injuries. (1) There would be widespread confusion, for some time, as to what the new and supposedly equal rights of non-whites were, because those rights are to be called by different names.  The confusion would be increased if different states chose different new for the new institution parallel to property.  (2) In order to carry out the statute’s command to use different names, everyone involved in an interaction, transaction, or event concerning property or ownership would be required to sort the participants into whites and non-whites just to talk legal talk accurately.   The bizarro statute endorses and in many circumstances requires the continued practice of legally distinguishing whites and non-whites.   (3) Non-whites would have to expend considerable effort teaching and explaining the new “non-property” terminology in order to claim the equal rights supposedly granted by the statute. (4) In order to comply with the law’s nomenclature distinctions, legally non-white individuals who might pass for white would be forced to identify themselves as non-white wherever their “property” rights were involved.  (5) Confusion over the new, unfamiliar terminology would result in the denial of the tangible equal rights the legislature intended to grant, both because of genuine confusion, and because a feigned confusion could be used by persons seeking to avoid the statute’s command of equality as to the institution of property.

An unlikely scenario?  This argument is adapted from the draft of an amicus brief on behalf of the New Jersey State Bar Association, to be filed in the Lewis v. Harris II litigation pending before the New Jersey Supreme Court.  I described that litigation in a post here yesterday, and (I must disclose) I helped write this part of this amicus brief.  The litigation is about a different institution, though — not property, but “marriage” and its bizarro double, “civil union”.

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Lewis v. Harris II — “civil union” versus “marriage”, one more time

Last month, on behalf of several same-sex couples, Lambda Legal filed a “Petition in Aid of Litigants’ Rights”  with the New Jersey Supreme Court, asking for further relief in Lewis v. Harris, 908 A.2d 196 (N.J. 2006).    The petition argues that the state’s Civil Union Law, created in 2006,  has utterly failed to create the constitutionally required equality for same-sex couples.  It requests the court to revisit the matter forthwith and order the state to recognize marriage for same-sex couples.

In 2006 in Lewis v.  Harris, the court held 7 – 0  that New Jersey’s constitution as a matter of equal protection (although not as a fundamental right) required the state to provide all the rights and benefits of marriage to committed same-sex couples, and also some kind of full legal recognition — the already-existing “domestic partnership” regime, with its limited benefits and different structure, was constitutionally insufficient.  But the court split 4 – 3 on whether to require the legislature to include same-sex couples within the legal definition of marriage, or to permit the legislature in its discretion instead to create a new legal institution for same-sex couples.  The legislature (very quickly) chose the latter course, enacting New Jersey’s Civil Union Law.

Three years later, the March 2010 pleading challenges that law as constitutionally inadequate.  It argues that the separate institution of civil union does not convey to same-sex couples and their families the important though intangible status of marriage, and that the separate-but-equal approach stigmatizes them in an ongoing way; that same-sex couples and their families must expend considerable effort and suffer considerable embarrassment claiming the equal rights that “civil union” is supposed to provide; and that in daily encounters, failures of others to recognize “civil union”, whether inadvertent or deliberate and feigned, regularly result in not being accorded rights and benefits equivalent to those of different-sex married couples, the goal that civil union is required to achieve.

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The First Amendment Goes to the Prom

In spring a young woman’s fancy turns to love.  Take Constance McMillen for example.  A senior at Itawamba Agricultural High School in north Mississippi, McMillen has been out as a lesbian since the eighth grade. Back in February the high school — for some reason — issued a policy directing that only opposite sex couples could attend the upcoming prom in early April.  McMillen asked for an exception so she could bring her girlfriend, and she also asked permission to wear a tuxedo. The high school and the county school board denied her requests.  McMillen and the girlfriend could attend, but only if each came with a boy as her date, if the girls wore dresses (not a tux, not slacks and a nice top), and if they did not slow dance with each other, which would “push people’s buttons”.  After McMillen got the Mississippi ACLU involved, the school board cancelled the prom altogether, citing  potential “distractions to the educational process”.   The school board expressed the “hope that private citizens [would] organize an event for the juniors and seniors.”

McMillen promptly sued in federal court, seeking an injunction to compel the prom to go forward.  In a decision issued March 23, just one day after the hearing, Senior U.S. District Judge  Glen Davidson (no liberal he — a Reagan appointee) denied her request.    McMillen v. Itawamba County School Dist., 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 27589 (N.D. Miss. 2010).  The opinion contains some interesting holdings.  The judge found that McMillen had a First Amendment interest in attending the  prom with a same-sex partner, and also a First Amendment interest in wearing cross-gender formal attire to the prom.   More on those notions in a moment.  Holding number three — he denied the preliminary injunction, based on his assessment of the familiar fourth factor for injunctive relief, consideration of the public interest. There was no need to reinject the school board into the prom process via court order or to get the court involved in planning and overseeing a prom, he found, because the parents of the high school students represented to him that they were now planning a  “private” prom which all the students in the high school would be invited to attend.  Judge  Davidson’s opinion used the scare quotes  around “private” and the italics for all.  Perhaps he suspected something was up.

With good reason, it turns out.  There were some additional shenanigans.  McMillen couldn’t find out where to buy a ticket to the “private” prom, then when she did, was told she had missed the cutoff time for purchase by a few minutes.   Then the parents announced that the prom they had told the judge about was cancelled altogether.   Eventually, though, McMillen thought that it was finally settled and on April 2 off she went in her tuxedo to her hard-won prom.   Only to find it was a decoy.   McMillen and her date (not the girlfriend, BTW — the girlfriend’s parents wouldn’t let her attend because of the media attention) were just about the only ones there — five other students, two of them with learning disabilities, and the chaperones, who were the high school principal and other school officials.  All the other students had gone to another,  “private”  prom being held at the same time in a location concealed from McMillen.  Some of the high school students later bragged on Facebook about the whole deception, further mocking McMillen.

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