Explainer: New Jersey’s Plan to Fortify Its Coast Still Faces Roadblocks

Scott Gurian | November 26, 2014 | Explainer, Sandy
State wants to build dunes, but hundreds of homeowners remain unwilling to grant easements

It’s a well-known story that after Sandy, Seaside Heights was dealt a massive blow, with its homes flooded and its iconic rollercoaster collapsed into the ocean. But just a few blocks south in the neighboring community of Seaside Park, the damage was much less severe. The major difference between the two municipalities was that Seaside Park was largely saved by a line of protective dunes, while Seaside Heights was not.

State officials say examples like this illustrate the need for more dunes along populated sections of the Jersey Shore, so they’re working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to make this plan a reality. In some places, these dunes could be 18- to 20-feet tall and 300-feet wide. For the most part, they won’t be covered with vegetation like the natural dunes advocated by environmentalists, so they’ll erode more easily and will have to be replenished every two to five years (or more often if there are major storms). Still, in many places, they would provide an added degree of protection in the short term and could make communities less vulnerable to future storms.

The state’s plan has been delayed, though, by several hundred holdouts who have refused to sign the necessary easements. They run the gamut from Libertarian-minded residents concerned about the government taking their land to folks who worry that a one-size-fits-all approach isn’t necessarily the best way to address coastal protection in their community.

Responding to a question at a town hall meeting on Long Beach Island in April of last year, Gov. Chris Christie drew the line in the sand, so to speak, pledging that he would use all power at his disposal to move ahead to protect the people and property of the state.

“We are building these dunes,” he said, to thunderous applause. “We are building these dunes whether you consent or not.”

But more than a year-and-a-half later, most of the construction has yet to begin. Here’s an overview of how things have evolved and where they currently stand.

The Big Picture

According to Army Corps officials, it’s a bit of an oversimplification to say — as state officials have stated on numerous occasions — that New Jersey intends to build dunes along all 127 miles of its Atlantic Coast. In fact, areas north of the Manasquan Inlet are already protected by existing sea walls (as is Sea Bright) or land with naturally higher elevation. So for that stretch of coastline, the corps has instead opted to construct a wide, elevated, flat berm. Uninhabited areas like the southern tip of Long Beach Island and Island Beach State Park will also be excluded from dune construction.

Most of the focus since Sandy has been on a series of projects to replenish beaches and restore existing dunes that were eroded by the storm. According to figures provided by the Army Corps and the governor’s office, that’s cost nearly half a billion dollars so far, with the federal government picking up the entire tab.

With repairs mostly complete, the attention now turns to new dune and berm projects. As the state resolves its ongoing disputes with the holdouts, the corps is opening the bidding process to private dredging contractors to actually start the work.

Overcoming Opposition

Despite the public safety benefits achieved by building dunes, some homeowners opposed them from the beginning. Speaking at that town hall meeting on LBI last year, Gov. Christie called them “knuckleheads,” and he made fun of those who feared the state intended to build roads, showers, hotdog stands, or anything other than protective dunes on their easements.

“Let me use a word that is indelicate,” he said, telling parents to cover their children’s ears.

“Bullshit! That’s what that is … That’s the excuse they use, cause here’s why they’re really concerned: They don’t want their view blocked.”

“This state sustained [more than] $30 billion of damage after Hurricane Sandy. We had 365,000 homes destroyed or significantly damaged,” he continued. “We are not going through that again so you can sit on the first floor rather than the second floor and see the ocean!”

A few months later, in July 2013, the state Supreme Court handed a victory to the Christie administration in the Harvey Cedars v. Karan case, overturning a lower-court decision that granted a couple $375,000 compensation after their borough built a 22-foot-high dune that obstructed their view. Citing the protective benefit the dune afforded both the couple and their neighbors from the “destructive fury of the ocean,” the justices called such compensation a “windfall at the public’s expense.” The ruling effectively paved the way for the state to embark upon its plan to fortify the coast without breaking the bank, and it increased the likelihood that more homeowners would be willing to settle without resorting to litigation.

A Year-Long Process

After the Harvey Cedars case was decided, many thought the state would move full steam ahead, starting immediately to use its eminent domain powers to acquire beachfront land where homeowners refused to settle. But like many matters pertaining to the Sandy recovery, the process has ended up taking a lot more time, in some cases running a year behind the state’s original schedule.

Despite Christie’s tough-guy message that “we can do this the easy way or the hard way,” the state ended up taking a softer approach for the most part, spending much of the past year-and-a-half doing what it could to obtain voluntary easement donations through outreach efforts, including letters to homeowners and public and private meetings. In cases in which those efforts have failed, the state instructed municipalities — including Ocean City, Longport, Long Beach Township, Middletown, Stratmere, Sea Isle City, Ship Bottom, and Surf City — to exercise their eminent domain powers, and when local officials were unwilling to cooperate in Margate (and for construction of a berm in the Delaware Bayshore town of Elsinboro), the state Department of Environmental Protection commenced condemnation proceedings on its own.

“I think things have moved very rapidly,” said the DEP’s Larry Hajna. “There are legal procedure you have to follow, and we wanted to give property owners the opportunity to think about this and to do the right thing, he explained, adding that the state has now secured more than 80 percent of the private easements it needs, with just 347 holdouts remaining of the more than 2,800 it needed in September of last year.

“I think we’ve made tremendous progress,” he continued, “and to say otherwise would be disingenuous.”

Other Reasons for Delays

The Army Corps says it’s not fair to simply blame the holdouts for holding up the process.
“There was a fair amount that had to take place on our end,” said spokesman Ed Voight. “While we were doing the restoration work in 2013, we had to update economic assessments, make sure that we had all the right environmental approvals, update the designs, and come up with new partnerships agreements with the state DEP in just about all cases because the scope of the work had changed.”

“Now it’s just down to the contracting and real-estate processes,” he added.

Opponents Remain Defiant

Although the state seems to be moving ahead, voters in Margate narrowly approved a nonbinding referendum earlier this month to spend up to $200,000 on lawyers to stop the state and the Army Corps from proceeding with the dune project in their municipality. They said that dunes aren’t the best approach for their community and that it would be better to reinforce the city’s existing bulkheads and take measures to address the flood risk they face from the bay side of the island.

Meanwhile, 123 holdouts in Bayhead continue to oppose the dune plans there. They’re calling instead for expansion of the existing rock revetment and repairs to jetties, which they view as more permanent and effective approaches to dealing with the impacts of devastating storms like Sandy.
Timeline Going Forward

The Army Corps recently awarded a contract for dune construction in Sea Isle City and southern Ocean City, so work there is expected to start in the coming months. Unless legal action arises in Margate or Bayhead, the DEP says Absecon Island and Long Beach Island will likely be awarded in the next few days, while the contract for the stretch of coast between Manasquan and Barnegat Bay will open for bidding in the next few weeks. These are large projects, however, so it could be another year or so before all the work is entirely completed. Beyond that, a dune in Wildwood may be several years off, since it’s still in the design phase.

Meanwhile, the Corps’ New York District has finished building its berm on the northern half of the Jersey Shore, between Manasquan and Sea Bright. The only part that has yet to be completed is a gap on a small section of coast between Loch Arbor and the Elberon neighborhood of Long Branch, whose contract is expected to be awarded this winter, once disputes with holdouts in that area are settled.

The Army Corps estimates it will cost $300 million to $400 million for all these projects combined.

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