Defiant NJ Beach Town could be sued for $21 million over dune costs

COURT HOUSE OF CAPE MAY, NJ (AP) — A beach town in New Jersey that defied state conservation authorities and rebuilt its dunes severely damaged by the storm may be suing for $21 million in shoreline build-up. but cannot build a bulkhead to permanently impede the waves, the judge ruled on Wednesday.

Supreme Court Judge Michael Blee issued a restraining order barring North Wildwood from building a bulkhead along the badly eroded stretch of shoreline, as it had threatened to do for months. The city defied the state Department of Environmental Protection and carried out emergency repairs to its beach in October after the remnants of Hurricane Ian gnawed away huge chunks of protective sand dunes.

Blee also ordered the city to file a new request with DEP for permission to carry out emergency repairs in light of what city officials say are steadily deteriorating conditions at the beach, which officials say has lost 75% of its sand.

But in what Mayor Patrick Rosenello called a significant victory, the judge allowed North Wildwood to continue its own lawsuit against the state. The city wants to recoup the $21 million it has spent moving sand from neighboring beaches over the past decade, pending a federal and state beach restoration project that has already received much of the rest of the Jersey coastline.

“Of course, I’m very pleased,” Rosenello said after the judge’s decision. “We will have to go through legal and administrative procedures and hopefully make the right decision.”

As it has since October, North Wildwood said Wednesday that parts of its beaches are at imminent risk of destruction in the next major storm.

“This is the most erosive site in the state of New Jersey,” said Anthony Bocchi, an attorney for North Wildwood. “Conditions have only worsened in the four months since October. Yes, the dunes did not break through, by the grace of God. We just got lucky.”

Kevin Terhune, the deputy attorney general representing the state, said the immediate danger was gone when Yang left the area in October and said the city’s dire predictions did not come true.

The DEP declined to comment on the judge’s decision. The company has previously said that the work North Wildwood wants to do could actually exacerbate erosion and likely damage environmentally sensitive areas.

In October, North Wildwood requested permission from the state to carry out emergency restoration work on the beach, including the construction of a bulkhead and the installation of temporary barriers in front of the lifeguard headquarters. DEP allowed time barriers but denied other requested jobs.

But in North Wildwood, repairs were made anyway, including transferring sand from one section of the beach to another, which was prohibited by the state due to lack of permission. And he stockpiled building materials and construction equipment on the shoreline in case he gets a court order to build a bulkhead, which is not yet discussed.

Disagreements between North Wildwood and the state span more than a decade. The state notes that North Wildwood continues to ignore a 2020 order to restore 12 acres (5 hectares) of mature vegetated dunes that were removed for another unauthorized dam project.

While much of the 127-mile (204 km) coastline of Jersey Shore received beach replenishment following Hurricane Sandy in 2012, North Wildwood did not. The city is part of a proposed federal and state beach restoration project that also involves Wildwood, Wildwood Crest, and Lower Township.

Numerous legal and real estate agreements must be in place before this can happen, and this project probably can’t begin until fall 2024 at the earliest, the state estimated in August.

For now, the city keeps its fingers crossed.

“If there’s a moderate storm, it’s all over,” Bocchi told the judge. “The beach is gone.”

Top photo: Construction equipment and supplies lie on a beach in North Wildwood, New Jersey on January 5, 2023. On February 1, 2023, a judge denied city officials permission to build an erosion control bulkhead, but allowed it to be moved. file a $21 million damages claim from the state to recover the cost of sand the city shipped at its own expense in the absence of a state and federal beach replenishment project. (AP Photo/Wayne Parry)

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