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Wednesday, April 24, 2024

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Beach Replenishment Expert Weighs in on North Wildwood’s Dilemma

Shay Roddy/File Photo
Stewart Farrell, an expert on beach replenishment and coastal processes in New Jersey, testified for North Wildwood that a bulkhead is the only practical solution to immediately address the city’s beach erosion crisis.

By Shay Roddy

No One Understands the Complexities Better Than Stewart Farrell, Who Has Studied the New Jersey Shoreline for Decades

Stewart Farrell, widely considered to be the foremost expert on New Jersey coastal processes, founded Stockton University’s Coastal Research Center in 1987, serving as its director until his retirement last year, ending a 51-year career on the university’s faculty.

Farrell has a Ph.D. in geology, with a concentration in coastal processes and sedimentation, from the University of Massachusetts. For 35 years, the Coastal Research Center has studied North Wildwood’s beaches. Farrell, 81, has served as a consultant to the city since his retirement from Stockton and said he’s been personally involved in North Wildwood for 15 years.

He was instrumental in bringing the first federally funded beach replenishment project to the state in 1991 and has worked closely with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the state Department of Environmental Protection on many projects of that type since.

But even earlier, in 1987, Avalon was facing severe erosion and called on Farrell to design the first beach replenishment project in the area. The professor and his students took to the borough’s beaches, gathering data and surveying the land. Based on the data, Farrell designed how to disperse the sand that would be added as part of the project.

His plan worked. An Avalon house that sold for $85,000 just before Farrell’s project was executed sold again months later, after he finished the project, but this time for $365,000. And with that, there was evidence the professor’s data-driven beach replenishment model worked, offering tremendous returns despite its extraordinary expense.

Now Farrell is helping North Wildwood in its efforts to get shore protection. He attended a meeting Feb. 1 on behalf of the city, a meeting that also included North Wildwood Mayor Patrick Rosenello, DEP Commissioner Shawn M. LaTourette and Lt. Col. Jeffrey M. Beeman, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Philadelphia District commander.

During a quiet morning of his new semi-retirement life, Farrell put down his paint brush for the better part of an hour for a telephone interview. The exchange on Wednesday, Feb. 28, has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

THE HERALD: Let us first set the record straight regarding your business relationship with North Wildwood. In the context of the litigation between the city and the DEP, you’re an expert witness who has submitted testimony on behalf of North Wildwood. Does the city pay you to give your opinion and are your opinions in any way influenced by the fact you are compensated by the city?

STEWART FARRELL: I see what I see and that’s what I tell them. If I do something, they pay me. My work in North Wildwood dates back probably to 2009. I worked for the previous mayor and council and the current administration. The Stockton University Coastal Research Center had annual contracts with them, and the Coastal Research Center still does field work as needed. That’s my relationship with North Wildwood. I was basically their coastal consultant.

HERALD: I think some might perceive that you can find an expert to back any position on anything, but is that what you’re doing? Your track record speaks for itself. Everybody knows how respected you are and how much experience you have. You’re not a mercenary, are you?

FARRELL: Hardly.

HERALD: We’ve got that disclosure out of the way. I want to ask you about the certification you filed earlier this year in court on behalf of North Wildwood. You said the current conditions in North Wildwood are a result of Mother Nature, but are also a result of the DEP and the federal government’s failings in implementing the Five Mile Dune Project. Why do you think the project has been so delayed? Why has it been this difficult for the city’s partners to get it off the ground, based on what you have seen?

FARRELL: I can’t speak for the Army Corps, but I do know they’ve had extensive difficulties with the design for moving the sand, and they insist that the four communities — North Wildwood, Wildwood, Wildwood Crest and Lower Township — all agree to their specifications. The biggest problem has been with the dune construction through Wildwood and Lower Township. Lower Township’s oceanfront is almost all owned by private parties up to the high tide line. They’re not all on the same page, and they have been delaying signing off.

The Army Corps is not going to go to construction without 100% of the easements. Additionally, in the northern third of Wildwood, private parties own the beach to the high tide line. The city does not own that part of the beach. And at the meeting, the state said, we don’t even know who the owners are.

HERALD: Does that statement make sense to you, given how long they’ve had this project?

FARRELL: You have to do title searches, and the county records are the county records. They’re not always perfection. Then, you find out that Uncle Joe died and he left it to three cousins and two nephews, and you’ve got to find all five of them and nobody knows who they are.

HERALD: Given that the project was presented to the public more than 10 years ago now, the funding’s been in place and the DEP and the Army Corps have had their partnership agreement in place since 2017 – which is now seven years ago – do you believe the DEP has moved as quickly on this as they should have?

FARRELL: I don’t know how fast they should have moved, because they don’t consult me on those things. I’d say they have work to do. At the meeting, the DEP committed earnestly that they were going to get it done. They now have a team, a combination of in-house and hired consultants in the title search business, strictly focused on the title search. They’ll be in charge of finding the owners and getting the easements.

Although the DEP didn’t say they were going to do what Gov. Chris Christie did, when he was in office, up in northern Ocean County. There, they condemned the easements. Christie said, we’ll take them now and we’ll litigate it later.

There are very strict rules, limiting what property owners could do in the way of developing things on that beach lot. They can play volleyball, they can have a fire, they can have a wedding, they can sit there, etc. But that’s it. No construction, no hardware, no nothing. So the easement essentially just allows, for the 50-year duration of the federal project, the right for the contractors and the surveyors and the Army Corps of Engineers personnel to come and go on the property when dealing with the project. Now, of course, that means they only show up for maintenance or initial construction, and so they’re not there very much of the time.

As always, these rich people who own beachfront properties have lawyers. They want to be reimbursed for this egregious affront to their dignity, or whatever they call it. And that’s not happening. So, the litigation has been ongoing over the takings in some cases related to what happened up there.

HERALD: Basically, the litigation comes down to what is the land that the state took worth, weighing that there was no development potential on it anyway?

FARRELL: Yeah, absolutely. That’s the whole fight. Some of the property owners want hundreds of thousands of dollars and some of the juries have decided they get 500 bucks. That would probably only pay for one hour of the lawyer. The legal fees were probably $50,000, and they got $500 at trial.

HERALD: Pivoting to the issue of the interim solution the city is seeking in the form of a bulkhead, North Wildwood filed an emergency authorization request with the DEP to install a beachfront bulkhead in the area around 12th to 15th avenues. When the city did that, the DEP said they were going to deny it because the DEP doesn’t recognize the circumstances there to be an emergency, under the rules. You disagree with that. I read what you swore to in your certification, but can you reiterate why you feel, both under the rules and just from a common-sense perspective, an emergency exists there, given the current conditions?

FARRELL: This is an El Niño winter. We’ve had multiple Nor’easters all winter long. So far, they have not been severe, which is just a good run of good luck. The fact is, each one of them chews away at what’s left of the dune in front of the city infrastructure. So there’s that and the size of the beaches. Any storm reaches the dune. The beach width is absolutely minimal. The waves hit the dunes and chew up the sand.

North Wildwood has hauled hundreds of thousands of cubic yards of sand up from Wildwood each year for many years, at North Wildwood’s nickel entirely. They have essentially kept the wolf from the doorway by spending millions of dollars every year. That is a bit harsh on the budget. A serious storm is going to invade the town through those dunes. There’s no doubt about it in my mind, and the city’s engineers agree with me.

We’ve told the state that; if there is a serious storm, expect some serious damage, and then, you’re on the hook for some of it when they declare the emergency. This bulkhead is a hard structure. We’re not in love with hard structure, but it’s the easiest thing to do.

HERALD: Regarding trucking of sand up from Wildwood’s beaches, there are times each day where it appears you would be able to get trucks around the amusement piers and into North Wildwood’s problem area, but that would not be on a consistent schedule. You can’t do it close to high tide, and certainly not during any full moon or storm.

They could go to a quarry and truck the sand in from there, as they did in the fall, placing it in front of the beach patrol building, complementing the bulkhead. But that comes at a tremendous expense. Can you elaborate on your opinion that back-passing is not feasible as a temporary holdover, until this Five Mile Dune Project hopefully gets implemented?

FARRELL: You just gave me the reasons; you just outlined it. That’s it. You can’t get past the piers at high tide. That essentially doubles your labor costs because they’re sitting there twiddling their thumbs during high tide. On top of that, the City of Wildwood doesn’t want them to take the sand. End of story. Game over. Quarry sand is $18 a yard, plus trucking and spreading. So, by the time you truck 100,000 yards, which is a drop in the bucket of what they need, you’re looking at serious seven figures. North Wildwood doesn’t have the funds. That’s not going to happen.

Dredging from Hereford Inlet is not a solution. The state can do it. The city could do it. The county could do it. But the feds are not allowed to do it, under the 1982 Coastal Barrier Resources Act that was passed by Congress, prohibiting the use of the sand. Some of the lawyers have changed the interpretation of that act. It says you can’t use the sand outside of the area delineated as the Coastal Barrier Resource Unit, which is Hereford Inlet. North Wildwood is outside the unit, as is the Borough of Stone Harbor. There’s 30 million yards of sand sitting there, easy access, but they can’t touch it with federal money.

HERALD: The DEP has been adamantly resistant to a bulkhead. In your papers, you agree a bulkhead is not the preferred method. But in this case, you argue it’s the only method that fits the circumstances. Why do you think the DEP doesn’t see it the way you see it?

FARRELL: One of the issues is the fact that there were these ephemeral freshwater wetlands between the bike path and the toe of the dune, which the North Wildwood engineer just ran through with the earlier bulkhead. And the DEP is really upset about that. Now they’re ephemeral wetlands. They’re only wet now. By July and August, they’re dry as a bone. Nothing lives there, and 500 to 600 people an hour walk by within 30 feet of the wetlands and ride bicycles and everything else.

You’re not going to have endangered nesting shore birds there. There’s about 20 feet of these little spongy, seasonally wet pieces of real estate that got mapped as freshwater wetlands, and the DEP will live or die on that petard. That’s one of the main reasons the DEP was so upset with the bulkhead.

HERALD: Do you think, had North Wildwood not put that bulkhead there, those wetland areas would still exist? Or would they be part of the ocean?

FARRELL: It would at least be wet every time the tide came in, because the preexisting timber bulkhead may have survived the attack. There would have been overtopping and sand in Kennedy Boulevard. So yes, it would have happened. There is no doubt about it. If nothing had been done, if North Wildwood had never trucked in sand from down the beach, they would have Kennedy Boulevard being part of the tidal environment.

HERALD: What, in your view, is the crux of the issue between the city and DEP? Given the reality of the current circumstances at the beach, and based on your expertise, why isn’t the DEP seeing an immediate need for action like you are?

FARRELL: As a result of the Feb. 1 meeting, the DEP commissioner and the other executives that came with him seemed to be in agreement that they were going to move forward with all due velocity and determination to get the federal project up and running by next year at this time. That doesn’t help the situation now. If we have a hurricane in the summer of 2024 or a March Nor’easter like we had in 1962, or even like the 1991 and 1992 Nor’easters, it would be pretty nasty. It’s good that they’re doing it, but it certainly doesn’t mean that the project is going to start in time for this season. There’s not going to be a whole lot done by then.

HERALD: So, basically, in your view, there needs to be an interim project, even if they move as quickly as they’re saying they’ll move on the Five Mile Dune Project?

FARRELL: Well, what would the interim project be? Wildwood won’t let North Wildwood take their sand anymore, and it’s not worth it to buy sand from a quarry. They’re just sort of stuck.

HERALD: So, do you have to put a bulkhead in?

FARRELL: Yeah, that’s the only answer. You’ve got to put the bulkhead in.

HERALD: Did you get any sense from the meeting that the DEP is coming around on that?

FARRELL: I can’t say for sure. That’s regulatory. The commissioner’s office doesn’t make those decisions, regulatory does.

HERALD: But given your experience, if the commissioner wanted that to get done, could he make it so that would get done?

FARRELL: Well, the commissioner does have the authority to direct his underlings to focus and get stuff done. He can do that. The various commissioners have had projects of their own interest and they’ve gotten them done.

I don’t know Commissioner LaTourette personally. He doesn’t know me from John Doe. I have had no personal interaction with this commissioner. I’ve known the past commissioners going all the way back to the 1990s. Mark Mauriello is still a good friend. There are all sorts of relationships I’ve had with DEP commissioners, and it’s been relatively positive. I can’t say anything about this guy because I’ve never had an interaction with him. When I retired from Stockton, he was just walking in the door.

HERALD: What did I miss here? What do you want to add?

FARRELL: That’s about it. The whole thing is based on the fact that the city and the state got into a tizzy over these wetlands and building the bulkhead initially. And now, of course, the back and forth has not been pleasant between them. And so, finally, the commissioner sat down with everybody and I think they decided, well, we’ve got to do something and the best thing to do would be get the federal project up and running as quickly as we can. And they didn’t guarantee it, but they said we were going to focus on spring of 2025.

To contact the reporter, Shay Roddy, email sroddy@cmcherald.com or call (609) 886-8600 ext. 142.

Reporter

Shay Roddy is a Delaware County, Pennsylvania native who has always spent as much of his summers as he could at the Jersey Shore. He went to Friends’ Central and is a graduate of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University.

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