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Showdown at the Shore: More dunes or fewer? And who pays?

If someone with a beachfront home refuses to sign to allow a dune to go on his or her property, what if the houses behind it are damaged in a storm? Whose insurance company pays?

I've been watching the discussion about beach replenishment and protective dunes building. And where it will lead...who knows?

In this story shortly after Hurricane Sandy, several of us from the Inquirer looked at whether the dunes at the Jersey shore made a difference. They did. Big time. And scientists looking at the effects figure they'll be urging that future dunes be higher and wider, especially considering the anticipated effects of sea level rise and climate change-fed storms.

The comments were vehement. Why should we let people continue to build in harm's way? Why should public money go into such a fool's mission? That was the gist.

Plenty of towns and residents have balked at dunes -- mostly because it would compromise their views. Some of the arguments have wound up in court.

Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, see it this way: "These areas that were hit the hardest will be looking for more federal disaster relief to rebuild when they actually brought it on themselves. We have a system that rewards bad planning and actions by government and citizens because the places that failed to do what was right want more money to fix what they did wrong,"

Not long after, Felicity Barringer of the New York Times wrote an article showing how critics are questioning how many times coastal communities can rebuild, and how much we can pay, before it all becomes untenable.

She wrote that in the case of New Jersey and New York, "Tax money will go toward putting things back as they were, essentially duplicating the vulnerability that existed before the hurricane."

And now in yesterday's Inquirer, James Osborne writes about how one shore resident who balked at letting a dune be built in front of his house is getting nasty remarks from neighbors.

He talked to Armando Rienzi, who has a vacation home at Brant Beach on Long Beach Island. He didn't want a dune because he view would be compromised. Now, though, Rienzi said people are driving by his house and and yelling, "Are you going to sign now?" The township mayor is suggesting that other residents sue the holdouts.

It's certainly a point. If someone with a beachfront home refuses to sign to allow a dune to go on his or her property, what if the houses behind it are damaged in a storm? Whose insurance company pays?

And if public infrastructure -- roads, power lines, whatever -- are damaged, too, who pays for that? The guy who refused to sign? The public at large?

It seems to me there are many more relevant questions that will have to be hashed out.

-- What's the government's role in all this?

-- How much of the beach is gone in front of Rienzi's home? Does he want beach replenishment? Just not the dunes? How would that work?

-- And what about the insurance companies? Will they refuse to insure your home if you refuse to have a dune in front? Will they refuse to insure your neighbors' homes? How will THAT play out?

-- Can we continue the practice of a beachfront property owner owning to the high tide line? Or should changes be made so wider ribbons of coast are publicly-owned and publicly-managed?

-- Is anyone seriously factoring climate change into all these matters?

-- If officials/public sentiment/whatever decide that rebuilding to the same extent along the beachfront is no longer possible, how do we get out of it?  What about property rights? What about beach economies? Is it possible for insurance companies to fund rebuilding now, but refuse to issue policies to do so in the future? What then?

I'll be watching with interest.