Chris Christie’s plan to impose a wall of artificial dunes on a Jersey Shore town is on shaky legal ground, and a storm that hit the coast this week threw cold water on the New Jersey governor’s scientific assumptions as well. In a substantial nor’easter that pounded South Jersey Monday and Tuesday, the city of Ventnor, a barrier island town that already has the Christie-type dunes in place, experienced very heavy flooding that the expensive sand mountains did nothing to prevent.
Worse, Ventnor, which has had dunes (also called “berms” in official parlance) for several years, flooded along a pattern that has held in the Garden State’s barrier islands through virtually every recorded storm, up to and including Hurricane Sandy: Water damage comes from the bay side, not the ocean side, where Christie’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and the Army Corps of Engineers are fighting homeowners and one local government to build a solid “wall” of man-made dunes.
As reported previously in National Review Online, Christie, using a series of emergency edicts and drawing on federal money in the aftermath of Sandy, is pursuing a plan to build a solid membrane of artificial dunes along the entire Atlantic coast of New Jersey, a region that includes both the mainland beaches of the northern coast and the network of barrier islands and marshy bays down south. Christie’s duneboggle has been opposed by property owners and homeowner associations up and down the coast, and recently the city of Margate, which borders Ventnor, took the state to court to prevent an attempt by Christie to seize land for the project without due process.
Adding insult to injury, dune-free Margate came through this week’s storm virtually dry and undamaged.
Both cities are located on Absecon Island, a South Jersey mound that is best known as the location of Atlantic City and is connected to the mainland through narrow causeways that run through a mess of bays and boggy marsh.
This reporter grew up in Margate but has not lived there for more than two decades. A long-familiar feature of life on Absecon Island is that the place is extremely prone to flooding, but that the flooding comes mostly, almost exclusively, from the landward bay — not from the ocean beaches. Although Christie seized on the post-Sandy panic and widely held beliefs that global warming will increase the fury of the Atlantic Ocean, dunes would not prevent the type of flooding that actually occurs on the barrier islands. (The concept of a solid wall of dunes is itself chimerical, since only the northern part of the New Jersey coast is mainland beach; any wall built on barrier islands would be incomplete by definition.)
The Corps of Engineers’ Absecon Island Coastal Storm Risk Reduction Project contains no plans to enhance bayside flood protection, nor have any state funds been made available to mitigate flooding where it actually happens. This is a serious flaw in the scheme, pointed up not just by this week’s flood but by the experience of Sandy itself, which did most of its flooding and damage away from the beach. Of 998 Margate claims for Sandy-related repair assistance after the storm, only two came from beach-block property owners.
All the flooding shown here occurred within a block of the bay, several blocks removed from the beach, where there was no appreciable flooding. Ventnor is particularly vulnerable because its mainland-facing side runs into a cluster of creeks and channels. One low-level section of town, misnamed “Ventnor Heights,” is located in the bay marshes and separated from the ocean-facing part of town by a narrow canal. Ventnor Heights was completely submerged during Sandy and sustained heavy flooding Monday, as did a section of town just across the canal.
Neighboring Margate has been the site of a battle over property rights that pits Christie, a 2016 Republican presidential possibility who is under pressure to demonstrate a commitment to conservative principle, against a group committed (at least in this case) to private-property rights and local control. Opponents of the dune project decry Christie’s “one size fits all” strategy and point out that Margate has a strong network of bulkheads that they say do a better job of preventing beach flooding than dunes would do. The city voted overwhelmingly in a 2013 referendum to say no to the duneboggle. This fall Margate sued the DEP and the Corps of Engineers. The city argues that Christie’s series of emergency orders aimed at “recalcitrant” property owners has led the DEP to pursue a novel legal theory that it can take control of the property through easements rather than condemnation and seizure, and that it can also seize the land prior to determining and paying fair market value to its owners.
Last week a U.S. district-court judge in Camden extended the city’s restraining order against Christie and strongly suggested that the governor pursue his efforts to seize Margate’s beaches through standard eminent-domain takings with compensation, rather than accelerated seizure by the government, as Christie prefers.
But this week’s very typical flood pattern suggests Christie’s scientific assumptions are as shaky as his legal tactics. While proponents of the dune project claim to be realists preparing for global warming’s rising tides and raging seas, it is opponents who frequently point out the contingent nature of life on a sandy island that cannot be rendered permanent by even the tallest dune. “We’re on a barrier island and by definition this thing is not gonna exist at some point,” former Margate mayor Vaughan Reale, an opponent of the duneboggle, told National Review Online recently. “Then it will reappear. Where exactly are we in the disappear/reappear cycle nobody can say.”
During this week’s nor’easter, filmmaker Patrick Armstrong captured a wall of water (or “wooder” as they say in Margate) breaking against the Longport “point” at the southern tip of Absecon Island. The footage is dramatic, especially if the viewer bears in mind that the ocean/bay inlet beyond the rocky wall used to be dry land that, according to older locals, stretched all the way to Ocean City, the next island south, and was arable into the late 19th or early 20th century.
Margate and the state are due back in court next week, but Monday’s flood is a reminder that even Chris Christie can’t tell the Atlantic Ocean to sit down and shut up.
Christie’s office, the DEP, and the Army Corps did not respond to phone and e-mail requests for comment.
[Photos courtesy of Helen Cielinski Lazar, Marylou Reiff, and Chuck Cavanaugh.]