Politics & Policy

Duneboggle: Chris Christie’s Sandstorm against A Shore Town

Barrier-island town fights back as state brings in Army Corps to build wall of sand.

A South Jersey beach town is fighting back against Governor Chris Christie’s massive project to reshape the Garden State’s beaches — a fight that casts serious doubt on the presidential hopeful’s commitment to conservative principles.

In a referendum last week, voters in Margate, N.J., restated their opposition to a project to build a wall of sand dunes along the seaward side of the barrier-island town, whose wide beaches have been its main attraction since early in the 20th century.

Margate residents had already voted overwhelmingly against the dune project in 2013. Last week residents approved a second referendum authorizing the city to take the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to court as well as approving $200,000 in legal expenses. But the state and the Army Corps both tell National Review Online they are plowing ahead with the project and expect to begin construction of artificial dunes in January.

It is not clear whether the state views its authority as deriving from properly executed easements for the beachfront land needed to build the large pile of sand or from the urgency Christie underscored in 2013 when he vowed not to let the government “be held back from completing these critical projects by a small number of owners who are selfishly concerned about their view.” A spokesman for the DEP tells National Review Online the state has completed its legal takings to begin the project, though local residents point to recent letters to local homeowners as evidence that the property-rights question has not been settled.

“We have the easements we need for Army Corps to move ahead with the project,” Larry Ragonese, press director for DEP commissioner Bob Martin, says. “We’re hoping Margate will move ahead with us. But we have ownership of the beach. We’re putting together a plan right now to run the Margate beaches if we have to. That would include running the lifeguards and collecting beach dues.”

But a group opposed to the project provided NRO with a letter to a local homeowner dated October 14, in which the DEP requests a voluntary donation and explains the process for appraising property and obtaining offers of compensation for the use of private land, steps suggestive of an early stage in the process of a taking. Christie is under pressure to move the project forward quickly, while its initial cost can be offloaded to federal taxpayers thanks to Superstorm Sandy emergency funding.

Although about 1,000 coastal-property owners have challenged the big-government project on a variety of grounds, Margate is the first case in which an entire town is objecting to the state/federal project, which aims to undo the excavations and rehabilitation that made New Jersey’s barrier islands inhabitable in the first place. The Army Corps’s Absecon Island project has already completed dune construction on the island’s largest and northernmost cities, Atlantic City and Ventnor.

“We have previously hired an attorney, and we will be meeting to discuss moving ahead in opposition to the dunes,” Margate mayor Michael Becker tells NRO. “We are looking to uphold the will of the people on the referendum. The whole philosophy of the dune project is not in the best interests of the people of Margate.” Becker points out that the beaches in Margate — one of four beach communities on Absecon Island — have long been considered among the most attractive on the East Coast. “And we’d like to keep it that way,” he says.

Opponents of Christie’s project — a scheme to build a contiguous wall of dunes from Sandy Hook to Cape May — raise several objections. The dunes, they say, would ruin beach views while limiting accessibility and usability. The construction would also infringe the riparian rights of property owners near the beach.

Margate also has a uniquely robust bulkhead system designed to absorb wave-motion impact. The bulkheads served the city well even in Sandy — during which most damage was caused not from the oceanfront but from flooding via the bay on the island’s landward side. (Of 998 Margate claims for Sandy-related repair assistance after the storm, only two came from beach-block property owners.) The characteristic pattern of storm damage on Absecon Island — including Hurricane Belle in 1976, Hurricane Andrew in August 1992, and the nor’easter later that same year — has been for damage to come mainly from the bay side. This was especially pronounced during Sandy, when the most severe damage on the island occurred in a section of the town of Ventnor — ironically named Ventnor Heights — which was almost entirely submerged by the rising bay even though it is separated from the rest of the island by a narrow canal and has no beachfront at all.

The Army Corps project for Absecon Island, however, contains no remediation or reinforcement of barriers to rising bay waters. “We don’t have a mandate to go out and do good things,” says Ed Voigt, spokesman for the Army Corps’s Philadelphia office. “All our projects are defined in scope. In the Jersey Shore project the main focus is on the oceanfront.”

“We also have other issues,” Margate mayor Becker says, “including drainage, ponding, and handicapped access to the beach. We presently have 14 handicapped access points. The plans on the table are for only four.” The dune plan, Becker notes, would also fill in all the space under Margate’s fishing pier with sand rather than water.

Although critics have lampooned dune opponents as rich beach homeowners, the leader of the opposition lives on the opposite side of town, near the bay. “I’m far from the beach,” Dan Gottlieb, executive director of Margate Citizens Questioning the Beach Project, tells NRO. “The first thing that struck me was the passion I have for the beach. They’re going to construct this wall of sand, and it’s going to be approximately a hundred feet at the base. There goes a third of our beach. What goes on on the Fourth of July at dead high tide, when you have barely any beach at all between the water and the dunes?”

Becker and Gottlieb point to another economic concern (beyond rendering beaches less attractive and accessible in an economy that is heavily dependent on beachgoers). Although the initial construction of the dunes will be funded completely by the federal government, they worry that ongoing upkeep of the dunes would end up becoming a long-term cost center for the small town.

“They say, ‘We’re going to add 100 feet of beach,’” Gottlieb says. “What happens over three days or three hours of a good nor’easter, when the ocean decides it wants that part of the beach back? They say they’re going to come back every three years for beach renourishment. Each time Ventnor has done a renourishment it’s cost $7 million. Because of Sandy there were federal funds available for Ventnor’s renourishment. But that won’t be the case going forward.”

The Army Corps’s Voigt says this concern is groundless. “People’s objections to the dunes themselves are one thing. But on the financial front, the concern that federal funding will dry up just won’t happen,” Voigt tells NRO. “There’s no scenario for the municipality being stuck with the bill. If they say in the future, ‘We didn’t want to do this renourishment and we lost the legal battle, but now we don’t want anything more to do with it,’ one of two things would happen: The state could do what they’re doing now, and impose eminent domain, and then the state would be paying for it. Or if the state says ‘We’ve got other priorities,’ the renourishment just wouldn’t get done.”

Disclosure: This reporter grew up in Margate and is familiar with many proponents and opponents of the dune project but has not lived there for more than two decades, during which time the town has shrunk in population but become much wealthier, changing from a mixed economy dependent on group summer rentals to a haven for vacationing second-home owners.

Christie’s imposition of the dune plan has received largely favorable coverage from the media, which are not inclined to look too closely into the wisdom of a one-size-fits-all approach to shore protection — nor to question the concept of a statewide wall of dunes that will be discontinuous by definition since most of New Jersey’s coast south of Asbury Park consists of barrier islands rather than shorefront connected to the mainland.

Nevertheless, the governor’s forceful and contemptuous treatment of property owners has been striking. As the dune war heated up in 2013, the governor dismissed shore residents as “knuckleheads” and called their arguments “bullshit.” His determination to impose a one-size-fits-all project across the entire New Jersey coast seems to have become more forceful as opposition has increased, and his apparent goal of building first and litigating later is reflected in the DEP and Army Corps claims that the project will begin imminently despite the passage of local referenda two years in a row.

Now the governor’s vision of returning the shore to a more sustainable state of nature pits Christie — who is viewed with great skepticism if not wholesale contempt by right-leaning Republicans who wonder if his populist bluster is matched by any discernible conservative values — against not just property-rights advocates but local-government officials, several of them Republicans, who are holding up concepts of local authority and subsidiarity. Beyond the technical objections raised by the activists in Margate is a more fundamental question of whether individual and local rights are to be respected when they conflict with big-government schemes that are ostensibly for the common good but are in fact guided by the timing of federal funding and the fading hysteria over Sandy.

Christie did not respond to requests for comment, but a local expert strongly in favor of the project matches the governor’s contempt for property rights and ridicule of dune opponents.

“It’s an absurd argument all the way down,” Stewart Farrell, director and founder of the Coastal Research Center at Stockton College, tells National Review Online. “It’s ridiculous. The idea that the dune works to mitigate storm damage was so well proven by Sandy that there isn’t any further discussion needed.”

Farrell’s comments, in which anecdotes contrasting his own rightness with the foolishness of others figure heavily, drip with contempt for opponents of the plan. He takes satisfaction in the reversal of a $375,000 settlement to elderly property owners in the borough of Harvey Cedars on Long Beach Island and relates with satisfaction a story in which an unnamed “1 percenter” in Margate came to grief after failing to heed Farrell’s wisdom. He makes no apologies for his demeanor. “The fact that they suffered some damage from Sandy is not a bad effect. And now they’re back at it. It boggles the mind,” he says. “So yes, I’m a little sarcastic.”

Farrell and other supporters of the project say the bulkhead system cannot provide the kind of protection dunes would. It’s unclear, however, that the dunes would be any more effective in preventing changes to islands that are always at the ocean’s mercy. History suggests the shape and size of the barrier islands change frequently in ways that even the tallest pile of sand would not prevent. According to local lore, Absecon Island itself in the late 19th century was still connected to Ocean City, several miles down the coast, by farmland that has long since been submerged and is now navigable by medium-sized vessels.

The history of Atlantic City, which was originally concocted as a spa for Philadelphians and New Yorkers, also demonstrates how hostile to humanity Absecon Island was prior to the original leveling of naturally occurring dunes. According to a report cited in Alfred Miller Heston’s Absegami: Annals of Eyren Haven and Atlantic City, 1609 to 1904, Jonathan Pitney’s original plan for Atlantic City as a resort collapsed in large part due to pests that thrive in marshes and dunes:

So numerous were the mosquitoes and greenheads in August, 1858, that horses, covered with blood, laid down in the streets, and cattle waded out into the ocean to escape the torture. Children scratched and squalled from the poisonous stings on limbs and faces. Excursionists begged the conductors to start homeward ahead of schedule time. Men and women converted their handkerchiefs into masks for their faces and a smoking fire was built in front of every house. Before bed-time the windows and doors were opened, and a board placed on top of the chimney, and a dense smoke sent through every chamber, to drive out the mosquitoes. After the house had been thus thoroughly smoked, the board was removed and the people re-entered.

Though Christie and his supporters accuse opponents of being selfish, the critics of the dune project say it is the plan itself that takes a hubristic view of life at the edge of an often hostile ocean.

“The case for bulkheads is as solid as the case for dunes providing protection,” former Margate mayor Vaughan Reale tells NRO, “There’s no modeling; there’s no science. Sit on the beach at high tide, build a little sand fort with your feet, and see how long it takes the ocean to wash it away. We’re on a barrier island and by definition this thing is not gonna exist at some point; then it will reappear. Where exactly are we in the disappear/reappear cycle nobody can say. Stew Farrell says sea level’s going to rise four feet in the next 50 years. If it does, nobody’s going to be sitting on the beach anyway.”

Farrell deflects all these criticisms by saying the dune project will go ahead no matter what shore residents want.

“Go ahead, scream and yell if you want to,” he advises opponents. “The governor is four feet and tail on this project. There will be a dune built to a specific elevation, and we will maintain it.”

— Tim Cavanaugh is news editor of National Review Online. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.


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