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Op-Ed: How Superstorm Sandy Unleashed Government Abuse of Power

The DEP’s storm protection plan rests on the power of the state to take private beachfront property to build a 100-mile wall of sand

thom ammarito
Thom Ammarito

The snarling superstorm Sandy not only unleashed Mother Nature’s fury against the Jersey coast, but she also loosed another evil: the abuse of government power over the owners of private property.

Acting arrogantly and unilaterally the DEP has embarked on its version of a storm protection plan that rests on the power of the state to take private beachfront property to build a 100-mile wall of sand. The problem with reactionary, politically driven plans such as this one is that they are seldom the right plan.

Without public hearings or input the DEP in 2013 dusted off Army Corps of Engineers’ reports on storm protection that were 10 to 20 years old and had sat unfunded until the post- Sandy headlines propelled Congress to take temporary action. Doubters of the ACE/DEP plan have met with name calling and vilification by state officials who are convinced their plan must be the only plan.

Ironically Mother Nature intervened to make the DEP plan less convincing. A series of storms from October through February has done two noteworthy things: It has put the DEP “dune-building” project back in the news and simultaneously showed the weakness of the state’s approach to storm protection. The storms also raised a question that no has asked, but should have: How will the state pay for its 100-mile dune?

This winter’s storms have demonstrated that there are obvious practical problems with the state’s project (which technically isn’t a dune, but a berm). One is that the berm does nothing to stop the flooding along the bays and inlets where most people at the Jersey Shore actually live. More than $70 million in damage was caused in Atlantic and Cape May counties by a January nor’easter with most of that damage coming from bay flooding, according to Stone Harbor Mayor Suzanne Walters.

Secondly, the weather illustrated the temporary nature of a berm, which after several storms will reduce the bulwark to a sandy speed bump. Whatever protection the DEP’s berm could provide initially will disappear before long, leaving towns just as vulnerable to a storm as they were before the berm was built. Even the Army Corps admits the impermanent nature of the berm.

A former Army Corps civil engineer testified recently that basing the berm plan on 20-year-old data and coastline models creates “… almost the perfect storm in reaching the wrong decision.”

The short life expectancy of the sand wall raises a crucial question for a state in deep financial distress: How will the state pay for rebuilding the berm and replenishing the beaches it intends to build on the seaward side of it?

According to the July 2014 Manasquan Inlet to Barnegat Inlet Storm Reduction Project Agreement between the DEP and the Army Corps of Engineers, it will cost the state $58.5 million for its share of the initial berm construction and approximately $340 million to rebuild the berm once constructed. The cost of the rebuild will be split evenly between the state and federal governments. The Army Corps of Engineers, which is actually constructing the sand berm, says it will need to replace the berm every three to five years depending on severity of local storms.

A similar agreement between the two agencies for the Brigantine Inlet to Great Egg Harbor Inlet calls for an initial investment of $412 million for storm reduction measures with $144 million coming from the state and local governments; but gives no cost for rebuilding the dunes once they wash away. Similar agreements are in place for other sections of the Jersey coast.

No state official has disclosed the total costs of rebuilding the sand berms or how future administrations will get the hundreds of millions of dollars for the state’s share. Will the cost be borne by the municipalities and counties? If so how much will property taxes increase to pay for the berm?

Depending on federal funding for beach protection seems risky at best. U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R-2nd) recently disclosed that there is no money for beach replenishment for New Jersey in the 2017 fiscal year budget proposed by President Barack Obama.

The governor’s office and the DEP have slyly diverted attention from the details of their questionable plan by placing the onus for storm protection on beachfront property owners, who have legitimate questions about the state’s true motivation for taking their property.

Why, for instance, is the state forcing homeowners to sign easements that give the state perpetual control of their property; thereby making it impossible for the homeowners to do anything in the future to protect their homes, even when state and federal funding for berm rebuilding runs out?

While a case may exist for the state to build a berm where no other storm barriers exist, how does the DEP rationalize taking property in Bay Head where private resources have been used to successfully build, maintain, and expand a storm barrier for 130 years? The current 50-year-old Bay Head revetment was built and maintained without a dime of taxpayer money. What is the administration’s justification for shifting the financial burden of storm protection from private pockets to the taxpayers’ wallets?

Logically we may conclude that the government confiscation of beachfront property is really about something other than storm protection. The real goal may be to build a political legacy by converting private property to public beaches, while providing no long-term storm protection. That would serve no one’s interests.

Thom Ammirato is a representative of the Bay Head Oceanfront Homeowners organization that is opposed to the state taking private property for its berm-building project. More information about the organization is available online.

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