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Friday, April 12, 2024

Review & Opinion

DEP: Because I Said So!

Thomas Cahill
North Wildwood earlier this year, as seen looking south from above Hereford Inlet.

It’s Time for the DEP to Get Its Head Out of the Sand Before North Wildwood Has None Left to Bury It In

It’s time the state Department of Environmental Protection takes accountability by explaining its position on shore protection in North Wildwood to the property owners and small businesses relying on it.

It’s the DEP’s responsibility to justify its stance and expound on its reasoning for the people it works for – the citizens and taxpayers of New Jersey.

The agency’s position on how to deal with the devastating erosion in North Wildwood is frankly as unclear as it is baffling. We know what strategies the DEP does not favor, but what it hasn’t explained, from its ivory tower offices, is what better solution it has to deal with an obvious and immediate problem.

The fact that the DEP has a press office is astonishing – not because it’s unexpected of a state agency that size, but because it is puzzling what work the office is actually performing.


The New Jersey DEP is a textbook example of bureaucracy run amok.


If the DEP’s commitment to solving North Wildwood’s dilemma is equivalent to its public relations efforts on the matter, the city should be very afraid of the competence and commitment of those holding the keys to the city’s fate.

Herald reporters have frequently and repeatedly attempted to interview DEP officials, seeking a better understanding of the agency’s strategy. Those requests have most often been met with a “no comment” or other times simply ignored.

Occasionally, a public record will be carefully selected and proactively shared to try to advance a certain narrative. Other times, a one- or two-sentence statement will be issued to obliquely address a question, difficult to decipher, like a Fata Morgana on the horizon beyond Hereford Inlet.

There hasn’t even been an effort to speak with the Herald on background, to help understand the complex matters concerning North Wildwood, even if what’s shared is not for attribution. Background conversations are regrettably common in journalists’ interactions with officials regarding sensitive topics and come after the two sides agree to the condition, one certainly not preferred by reporters but sometimes necessary to better understand the truth and more thoroughly inform the reporting.

At least some background knowledge is better than nothing. But with the DEP, they haven’t been on the table, perhaps because the officials have no explanation to offer, on or off the record.

Try to speak to the DEP’s top official, Commissioner Shawn M. LaTourette – we’ve done that too. After eventually persuading him to agree to a videotaped interview, LaTourette cancelled less than 48 hours before the Herald was set to meet him in Trenton, with his office giving no explanation and saying he was unable to reschedule.

Did LaTourette realize he may be exposed, like the subject of the folktale “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” if confronted with the pertinent questions on the DEP’s role in North Wildwood?

In another troubling example of the DEP’s apparent contempt for accountability, the agency’s PR staff was disingenuous, at best, and dishonest, at worst, in response to the newspaper’s pointed request for data regarding the DEP’s progress obtaining real estate easements – a prerequisite for the Five Mile Dune Project, which has been delayed 10 years.

Undeterred, the Herald newsroom sifted through voluminous public records to determine the DEP had only reached deals with two of the 35 parties it must agree with before the dune project can commence.

Despite such little progress, the DEP has often cited the dune project in correspondence with city officials and court filings, as a means of demonstrating that it has some plan to address the problems in North Wildwood.

The New Jersey DEP is a textbook example of bureaucracy run amok, an agency out of touch with the people and places it regulates. Their unapologetic attitude about that adds insult to injury in the eyes of the taxpayers who fund their budget and rely on their projects.

Further aggravating the circumstances in this case has been the DEP’s commitment to litigation against North Wildwood and the adversarial posture it has taken relative to a city that it should be working with and not against.

And that is not to absolve North Wildwood of responsibility for its conduct, obviously the result of its disdain for the authoritative agency’s casual attitude toward the city’s need for beachfront fortification. North Wildwood should have gone to the courts much sooner, rather than simply disregarding DEP protocols for approving the shore protection work it undertook.

While the DEP must remain focused on its obligation to the environment, it has an important responsibility to be transparent and accountable to the citizens. It certainly is not serving them by focusing its energy and resources on punishing the city’s administration by allowing the ocean to endanger North Wildwood. Furthermore, the DEP refuses to acknowledge that what the city did without its permission has worked.

Although North Wildwood’s process was flawed and its actions defiant, it’s vindictive for the DEP to be fining the city $12.8 million – a historic figure – in part for installing bulkheads, now regularly pounded by waves, and allegedly destroying dune and wetland areas that would be hundreds of feet in the ocean if not for the city’s unauthorized endeavors.

It’s understandable that the DEP does not want to allow a precedent to be established under which municipalities that don’t acknowledge the agency’s authority go unpunished. But it’s also time they reach a reasonable settlement, strongly censuring North Wildwood for the alleged unlawful actions, but also taking into account the tremendous cost the city has incurred in performing authorized and unauthorized shore protection projects over the last decade. After all, those projects have been necessary because of the DEP’s incompetence in performing the prerequisite task that would allow the Five Mile Dune Project to proceed.

The dune, which, as designed, would solve North Wildwood’s problem for at least 50 years once constructed, is a venture that already has approved funding. And the lion’s share would come from the federal and state governments, leaving only a fraction of the cost to be paid by involved municipalities.

Even worse has been the fact that while the city waits for the DEP to do the work it’s tasked with to get that project started, the agency has refused to acknowledge North Wildwood is facing an emergency, with taxpayer-funded lawyers arguing on the DEP’s behalf this month that no emergency exists, after the city had asked to extend its bulkhead.

It’s obvious to anyone who has lived at the Jersey Shore that the resort town is one moderate storm away from facing devastating consequences.

In its legal pleadings, the DEP has relied on the laws that granted its overreaching authority, making any arguable maneuver it can come up with to avoid a trial on the merits of the disagreement with North Wildwood, avoiding putting forth an environmentally responsible solution to serve the people of New Jersey.

What is truly disheartening is that the DEP only talks in court. It refuses to explain itself to North Wildwood property owners, many of whom have put their life savings into a vacation residence or life’s work into a business now facing imminent peril.

It’s no surprise then that Mayor Patrick Rosenello – who has been extraordinarily vocal and equally critical of the DEP – and the City Council have enjoyed exceptional support from their constituents.

You can see the local officials’ hustle and passion. But they also share their ideas, which are substantially supported by thoughtful plans and the sworn statements of well-respected coastal scientists and experienced environmental engineers.

Meanwhile, the DEP does everything to avoid explaining its thinking, or why the city’s experts have it wrong. But worse, when the citizens, whom they work for, ask them to explain their position, the agency has a response: “Talk to the hand.”

Given the DEP’s decades-long reputation for highhandedness, it is becoming clearer that the DEP’s ivory tower is actually a house of cards that department officials are desperately afraid will be blown over by any intelligent person who challenges their actions.

Hopefully, the DEP gets their head out of the sand before there is none left in North Wildwood to bury it in.


From the Bible: You must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor. From Ephesians 4

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