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Tagged: risk perception

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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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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