They were never in it for the money, said Bay Head oceanfront homeowners who tried to block a $128 million beach replenishment project from their town.
But after losing their case, the homeowners who sank up to $8 million of their own money into improving a stone seawall after Hurricane Sandy in 2012 are facing the same prospect as others in Jersey Shore towns who resisted the Christie administration’s drive to build up the beaches.
In ruling against the Bay Head homeowners, Ocean County Superior Court Assignment Judge Marlene Lynch Ford set a September 15 date to start the standard proceedings toward condemnation, and assessing how the homeowners should be compensated for construction easements on their private beachfront property.
While subject to appeal, the decision was one more boost to the Christie administration’s push to engineer wider beaches and dunes all along the state’s 127-mile ocean coast. This summer the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and state Department of Environmental Protection pressed ahead with pumping sand on Atlantic County’s Absecon Island, after a court fight with Margate officials and residents over noxious rain ponding on the beach construction site.
The program and its court challenges are closely watched in other East Coast states too, where the Corps of Engineers plans to replicate that model, with as many as 40 beach replenishment projects worth $2.7 billion into the 2030s.
In her long-awaited written decision issued August 16, Ford said the Bay Head homeowners — joined by neighbors in Mantoloking and Point Pleasant Beach who chipped in to extend the rock revetment originally built after a 1962 storm — made good arguments about their private ability to defend themselves against the sea, and against the state Department of Environmental Protection’s demand for permanent public easements for building and maintaining dunes in front of the wall.
But in the end, Ford deferred to the expertise of the DEP and Army Corps of Engineers coastal experts in designing a 14-mile system of engineered beach and dune to protect against the next Sandy. The so-called 100-year storm is actually a statistical expression for a storm strength that has a 1 percent chance of striking in any year.
A 200-year storm
“The storm protection afforded by the 1962 revetment, although imperfect, was greatly enhanced by the design modifications that produced the revetment in its current condition,” Ford wrote. Based on evidence in February court hearings, the revetment should in fact be sufficient to protect adjoining homes even during a 200-year storm, the judge found.
Ford said the homeowners brought out a “very compelling concern” that the Corps and the DEP have agreed to modify the beach and dune plan along the commercial boardwalk stretches of Point Pleasant Beach and Seaside Heights — despite the agencies’ insistence the plan, with its dunes cresting 22 feet above low tide, be accepted as is for Bay Head.
But those compromises were not evidence of arbitrary action by the DEP, and “the comprehensive and fairly continuous dune and berm system provides other benefits to the public, including public access and recreational beach protection, that are not addressed solely with the revetment,” Ford wrote.
Anthony DellaPelle, a lawyer and specialist in eminent domain issues who leads the homeowners’ legal team at the Morristown firm of McKirdy, Riskin, Olson, said they are considering the next move.
“We’re disappointed with the ruling. The judge was obviously impressed with our arguments,” said DellaPelle.
It is the latest affirmation of the DEP’s power over the coast in a complex chain of court proceedings, triggered when the agency — urged on by Gov. Chris Christie in the aftermath of Sandy — began condemnation proceedings against property owners who refused to grant easements. So far, the agency is winning.
State environmental Commissioner Bob Martin said Ford’s decision “is a strong vindication of the state’s authority to protect all of the people and property of northern Ocean County.”
“From the outset, we were confident that the engineering and shore protection principles DEP presented would ultimately prevail in court. Now that it has done so, we are ready to move forward with this project,” Martin said in a prepared statement.
The Ocean County project got an early start at the end of May at Ortley Beach in Toms River Township, where homeowners rebuilt after being devastated by Sandy and had only a narrow strip of beach and no real dunes. The spring beach work got Ortley ready for the summer season, and work will resume in late fall.
Mayor Tom Kelaher said the easements issues were largely resolved on the Toms River sections of the barrier-beach peninsula, with private beach associations meeting with the DEP about how their own maintenance programs will work during and after the project.
“They will still take care of their own beach,” as will the township, Kelaher said. “Annual maintenance, that’s ours. It’s never the same, it depends on the weather and the winter conditions.”
“The federal government will come back every five years and restore and refurbish,” he said.
The Corps’ contractor, Cranford, N.J.-based Weeks Marine, has begun to bring in some equipment to start the north end of the project at Mantoloking, where its dredge RS Weeks could begin pumping sand from offshore “borrow areas” — undersea sand hills — in late September, as the company frees assets now working on the $63 million Absecon Island project, said Stephen Rochette, a spokesman for the Corps’ Philadelphia district office, which is planning and managing the beach replenishment.
More sand resources charted
The Corps’ ambitions got more backing last year with a $6 million study of offshore sand deposits that could be used for future beach replenishments. Paid out of post-Hurricane Sandy funding, the survey findings from 13 states by the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management included an additional 157 million cubic yards of sand accessible in federal waters off New Jersey, to keep rebuilding beaches over the next 50 years.
That’s about six times as much sand that will be used in the initial Ocean County project. Those 26 million cubic yards would be enough sand to fill MetLife Stadium in the Meadowlands five and a half times, the Corps’ engineers calculate.
“We’re going to need a lot of sand, and we’re going to need a lot of money,” said Lynn Bocamazo, chief of the Corps of Engineers’ Hurricane Sandy Relief Branch, when she spoke in October 2016 to the American Shore & Beach Preservation Association’s national conference in Long Branch.
All the East Coast projects envisioned by the Corps would require 140 million cubic yards of sand, delivered through 207 contracts, Bocamazo said. The estimated costs: $2.1 billion to $2.8 billion, plus some $895 million in mobilization costs.
The big question
Whether Congress will continue to fund those efforts was one big question raised by the Bay Head homeowners. Their lawyer John H. Buonocore Jr. questioned the Corps of Engineers economic cost-benefit projections for the project, suggesting the Corps’ estimates overstated economic benefits, while shortchanging the homeowners’ native ability to maintain their storm defenses.
“This is going to be relied on by the taxpayers of the United States who are going to pay hundreds of millions of dollars for this project,” Buonocore said.
Under its project authorization from Congress, the Corps plans to maintain the beach from Manasquan Inlet to Island Beach State Park over the course of 50 years, periodically pumping in fresh sand from the sea floor after storms and erosion — at a projected cost of $514 million over that half-century. But money for that work is dependent over years on congressional appropriations, White House budget proposals, and the state’s own shore protection trust fund — with no guarantees, the Bay Head group argued.
The state-by-state review of potential offshore sand reserves has encouraged the beach-builders. The study, paid for and compiled by the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, found ample supplies off New Jersey, beneath federal waters outside the state’s three-mile jurisdiction from shore.
Skeptics and some coastal scientists have questioned how long it will be practical and affordable for the Corps to tap offshore sand resources. But using modern survey techniques, like low-frequency sound waves to map seabed deposits and sediment core samples, researchers found more significant and economically recoverable sand resources between three and eight miles offshore.
For the purpose of beach construction now, “all of the borrow sites are within three miles. For future replenishment, we’re working with BOEM for resources for future work. It’s additional sand resources for us going forward,” said Rochette, the Corps of Engineers spokesman.
BOEM was looking for usable sand at depths of 75 to 90 feet, easily reached by hydraulic dredges and pumped as sand-and-water slurry through floating pipelines to the beaches, said John King, a professor at the University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography who surveyed sand resources off his state.
With the newer acoustic technology, “we were able to capture it in three dimensions. You can come up with the volume of sand out there,” King said. Deposits he mapped are “tens of meters thick,” easily capable of being mined for the top five to 10 feet of sand without radically altering the bottom, he said.
Those sands can be transported to shore without much more cost, King said. “Three nautical miles is not really a problem,” and it’s feasible to hydraulically pump up to eight miles, he said.
The sands farther offshore are typically ice age deposits, relics of a time when sea levels were much lower, sediments left by glacial rivers and now-drowned barrier islands. If they are tapped for future replenishments, the Corps will hear fewer complaints from beachgoers about “dirty sand.”
“The thing about 21,000-year-old sand is there’s no organic material in it, no hydrogen sulfide,” the rotten-egg smell that sometimes comes from dredged sediment, King said.