Search
Close this search box.

Monday, July 15, 2024

Search

N. Wildwood Mayor, DEP Commissioner Battle Over Approach to Offseason Beach Work

Shay Roddy
Waves crash into a bulkhead near 2nd Avenue and John F. Kennedy Beach Boulevard in North Wildwood Sept. 25. Beaches in this part of the city have been severely devastated by erosion and the ocean poses an increasingly alarming threat to nearby infrastructure.

By Shay Roddy

NORTH WILDWOOD – A longstanding feud between North Wildwood and the state Department of Environmental Protection over how best to address the immediate threat posed by the Atlantic Ocean continued this month, with the city’s mayor and the commissioner of the state agency trading letters expressing disagreement over what should be done this winter to put a Band-Aid on what both sides agree is a serious shore protection problem.

In a letter to DEP Commissioner Shawn LaTourette, dated Tuesday, Oct. 3, North Wildwood Mayor Patrick Rosenello wrote that erosion, which “accelerated dangerously” during the final weekend in September, makes any potential effort to import sand “unworkable.”

The DEP had told the city it expected it to import sand to buffer what remains of a dune system that has been largely wiped out by erosion and city projects to install hard barriers meant to protect property and other infrastructure from the ocean.

Rosenello told the commissioner that sand brought through back-passing projects or from offshore mines would immediately wash away, “wasting taxpayer funds without any corresponding benefit.”

Rosenello opined in his letter to LaTourette that the city could not, in good conscience, proceed with such a project. The mayor’s letter pointed to seemingly endless delays in implementing a fully funded and long-awaited dune construction project, which would span the length of the Five Mile Island, adding that in the absence of such a project, the only logical alternative would be additional bulkheading, a measure that the DEP has consistently resisted in favor of more natural, but less permanent alternatives.

In response, LaTourette wrote Rosenello in a Thursday, Oct. 12, letter, stating that if the city did not comply with the department’s orders, the DEP would pursue “aggressive enforcement action” that may lead to further penalties, additional to the historic $12.8 million the DEP already fined the city for alleged unauthorized projects.

LaTourette told the mayor the importation of sand was not only a requirement of the DEP’s pre-Memorial Day authorization for the city to regrade cliffs carved in the sand by wave action last offseason, but also necessary to “restore sand disturbed by the city during emergent bulkhead construction.”

LaTourette called the city’s inaction “not acceptable,” going on to say that bringing in sand would provide interim shore protection benefits while awaiting the long-delayed larger project. Additionally, the commissioner asserted that had the city completed the sand mitigation by the end of September as required, the dune at 15th Avenue, which breached that weekend, may have been less susceptible to the storm’s devastating impact.

In the past, the city has flouted state regulations, installing bulkheads without required permitting, leading the state to impose Notices of Violation and associated fines, which are now the subject of litigation.

In addition to constructing bulkheads for several years North Wildwood undertook back-passing projects in which the city paid contractors, using funds from its own budget, to dig up sand from the expansive beaches of Wildwood and Wildwood Crest to be trucked up to North Wildwood and then dumped and regraded on what was left of its beaches.

Last offseason, the city abandoned that effort, making various claims about why it felt it was no longer feasible or worthwhile.

In past interviews with the Herald and in other public statements, Rosenello has consistently pointed to the fact that the Wildwoods are the only Atlantic-facing Jersey Shore communities that have not benefited from an engineered dune project supported by federal and/or state funding. In the absence of a hydraulic dredge project, Rosenello has maintained that building a hard barrier is the only option.

The dispute found its way to court in late 2022, when the DEP sued the city, asking a judge for an injunction to prevent North Wildwood from building an unauthorized bulkhead, which it had already ordered and received materials for.

North Wildwood then countersued the DEP, asking the court to award it more than $20 million in damages it claimed it incurred, due to the fact the DEP did not perform what the city argued were its contractually bound obligations to provide shore protection.

A Superior Court judge granted the DEP’s restraining order and urged the parties to work together to find a solution to a situation the judge recognized as a serious risk to the city’s infrastructure. Eventually, in June, Judge Michael J. Blee did agree to throw out several counts of the city’s countersuit, but transferred a breach of contract count to a different division within the state’s civil court system. That case is now before Judge James H. Pickering.

In his letter, Rosenello asked LaTourette to visit North Wildwood to meet with the mayor so the DEP commissioner could re-inspect the present conditions for himself. LaTourette did appear personally, earlier this year, in North Wildwood and met with Rosenello, perhaps demonstrating a desire for dialogue and collaboration, which stood in contrast to the DEP’s position in court, where the regulator relied on legal arguments that had little, if anything, to do with the realistic issue facing the city.

Instead, in its filings, the DEP presented arguments relying on authority granted by legislators, mostly ignoring the crux of the problem facing North Wildwood or the dispute about how to best solve it. The DEP’s position was that it had the law on its side and so it didn’t need to litigate the underlying issue.

This summer, the city posted signs near beach entrances featuring photos of LaTourette and Gov. Phil Murphy, with a message blaming them for the diminished state of the city’s beaches.

LaTourette deflected when responding to the mayor’s complaints about the delays in the long-planned Five Mile Dune Project, directing blame at neighboring island municipalities who objected to plans to implement the dune, citing concerns with obstruction of view, more complicated access for the elderly and disabled, and no immediate need for the shore protection it would afford given their already expansive beaches.

Recently, LaTourette strong-armed Wildwood and Lower Township, demanding they sign state aid agreements, permitting construction of the dune to progress. However, complications, including the necessity for the state to acquire easements from private property owners on the beach and beachfront, have stalled the project.

According to LaTourette’s letter, the Five Mile Dune Project now has an estimated start date of early 2025. That Army Corps of Engineers’ project, which is sponsored by the DEP, had an amended feasibility cost share agreement reached in 2013 and there was a partnership agreement in 2017, however, as noted, construction has yet to begin.

LaTourette warned that absent the city’s “endeavor toward a neighborly agreement toward back passing, or its procurement of alternative sand, the city faces conditions where, by design or default, incremental bulkheading of the shoreline appears its only option. However, as you know bulkheading may not be advisable or approvable.”

“Ultimately, the city’s inaction contributed to the conditions warranting the emergent bulkhead installation” in front of its beach patrol headquarters, LaTourette asserted, going on to say “continued emergency permitting driven by preventable conditions” would be more preferably addressed through a “productive dialogue about more sound beach management practices that will meet our shared goal of improving coastal resilience.”

LaTourette also made certain to note that the city “must also address its prior environmental violations, including the bulldozing of acres of mature, vegetated dunes that had provided shore protection and offered a more stable reservoir of sand that was vital to the beach and dune system.”

In conclusion, LaTourette reiterated his position that the current state of the city’s beaches are the result of “avoidable circumstances” exacerbated by North Wildwood’s misguided approach in addressing the problem.

In response to the mayor’s request to meet with the commissioner, LaTourette would not agree to come personally but instead suggested a more appropriate audience for such a technical meeting would be the “experienced public servants” who comprise the department’s Division of Land Resource Protection management and staff.

Contact the author, Shay Roddy, at sroddy@cmcherald.com or 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.

Spout Off

Wildwood Crest – I will do all that I can to see that President Biden is re-elected. Why? Despite my disagreements with him on particular issues, he has been the most effective president in the modern history of our…

Read More

Sea Isle City – To the spouter from Sea Isle spouting about the DPW and CLERKS contacts not being settled, remember when Ocean City’s contracted trash company refused to pick up their trash. We the Trash men went…

Read More

Marmora – The shooter donated to a Democrat fundraising site right before registering Republican. His father is a Mental Health Professional and his parents are Democrats. He's been involved with Antifa…

Read More

Most Read

Print Edition

Recommended Articles

Skip to content