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Residents worry crumbling seawalls might cost them their homes

City isn't interested in helping homeowners with funds

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MARGATE, Fla. – Waterfront property is something that a lot of people dream about, but in the city of Margate it’s making some homeowners lose sleep. 

The seawalls in some sections of the city – chiefly along East River Drive – are beginning to crumble, with the banks eroding at an alarming pace. And unlike many waterfront homes, the Margate dwellings are modest, with many assessed at between $200,000 and $300,000. With a new seawall running from $100,000 to $200,000 to replace for many of the properties, residents say the cost force them out of their homes. 

“It’s physics, I mean unfortunately it’s eventually gonna fall in,” said homeowner Dan Parish, who has an extended seawall that is separating from the eroding bank. “The house is probably worth what 300,000? You put $200,000 into a seawall you're at a loss. It's a scary thing.” 

For Scott Ginsberg and Van Jones, who live next door to one another on East River Drive, the worst occurred recently when their seawalls collapsed into the canal, leaving Ginsberg’s home perched precariously close to the edge. 

“When it fell, it was like, ‘Oh my God,’” said Jones, who said she simply doesn’t have the money to replace it. “It was quite scary … I felt like my back was against the wall.” 

The collapse, first reported by Margatenews.net, led to major questions to who was going to cover the roughly $200,000 cost for Ginsberg’s entire seawall and the half of Jones’ seawall that also crashed into the canal. Ginsberg purchased the home for $230,000 in 2016 -- and the cost of the seawall is roughly $130,000. 

Both went to the city for help, but after officials initially agreed to pay for it, the city reversed course, saying that because it was public property the city couldn’t legally fund the new seawall. At a recent city commission meeting, commissioners and city officials claimed that because the seawalls are owned privately it would be illegal for taxpayers to fund the repairs. 

“It's against the law for us to spend city money to upgrade private property,” said Vice Mayor Anthony Caggiano. “The city can't fix it.” 

“The responsibility for private property owners under your code is to maintain their property,” said City Attorney James Cherof. “You can't substitute public money to do that, that's my opinion.” 

But homeowners facing potential financial ruin say that city’s argument isn’t wrong on several counts. Parish says the survey for his property shows that he doesn’t own the seawall at all. Two nearby homeowners showed Local 10 their surveys, both of which showed their property lines running directly through the center of the wall, which they said showed it was half-owned by the city. City officials say the walls were built by private developers dating back to 1959 and are owned solely by the residents. 

Homeowners Rose Cuffari and Michele Jerabek, whose backyard is slowly slipping into the canal and whose seawall has lost most of its support and is perilously close to collapse, points out that the waterways are controlled by the South Florida Water Management District and have several public uses, including flood control. 

“If we have no control over the water being raised and lowered why are we responsible to fix it?” asked Jerabek. “The boats go flying by up and down they lower and higher the water.” 

Mayor Arlene Schwartz, who arranged a boat tour of the canals for Local 10, said she wants to find a workable solution for homeowners. 

“I believe the problem is if the city were to expend city funds alone on this it would bankrupt the city,” she said. 

Schwartz said an assessment needs to be done of all the seawalls and suggested a special taxing district, which would put the onus on the homeowners but spread out the cost, might be one answer. If forced to replace the seawall on their own, Cuffari said there would be only one alternative: “We’d have to move.”  

In the case of Ginsberg and Jones, the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency, which is funded by business tax dollars, stepped up to pay for the damage, effectively saving the residents from financial ruin.