NORTH WILDWOOD – The state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has approved a last-minute request by the city, allowing North Wildwood to regrade some of its beaches, eliminating cliffs created by erosion, and rebuild three beach access points that had to be closed as a result of the steep drop-offs.
The DEP has granted the city permission to:
- reshape the existing face of remnant dunes from the mid-point between 12th and 13th Avenues extending to 16th Avenue
- restore/reconstruct public beach access points located at 13th and 14th Avenues
- remove the existing 15th Avenue beach access ramp and install a new public access point immediately to the north of the existing access point
- reinstall split rail fencing to designate public access/direct passage
In an interview with the Herald March 18, North Wildwood City Administrator Nicholas Long said a contractor for the city will begin work May 22. He said, weather permitting, the contractor will complete the vast majority of the work prior to the first big beach day of the year, May 27.
The city will also have to tell the DEP within 30 days how it plans to restore or replace the sand removed from the dune area to flatten the cliffs, in order to mitigate the damages to its storm protection.
A Public Safety Hazard
In an interview, North Wildwood Mayor Patrick Rosenello said the DEP finally acknowledged what the city has maintained since October – a public safety emergency existed on its beaches.
“Everybody with a set of eyeballs knows that there’s a major problem in that area. You can’t stand on those sheer drop-offs and not realize that they’re a public safety hazard. So, we narrowed this emergency authorization down to just the public safety issues. And quite frankly, I would’ve been surprised if the DEP had denied it,” said Rosenello.
The state had previously denied the city’s request for emergency authorization (EA) to do the same things it’s now allowed to do when it had been included in prior requests submitted in October 2022 and in February. Those requests also included the extension of a steel bulkhead, which has been a major sticking point between the state and the city, and other elements that were not included in the most recent request.
An application submitted by the city for a Coastal Area Facilities Review Act (CAFRA) permit to install the extension of the bulkhead is being considered by the DEP.
The DEP could have approved the regrading of the dunes in isolation, while denying construction of the steel bulkhead. City officials have pointed out the department did allow North Wildwood to install temporary concrete barriers in front of the beach patrol building, a request made by the city in an October EA submission in the wake of Hurricane Ian, while denying permission for the bulkhead installation and regrading of sand.
“Quite frankly, had they (approved regrading of dunes then), we most likely would’ve been able to preserve more dune, because a graded dune is going to deteriorate much slower than a sheer dune. So, by their actions, they’ve actually caused that dune to deteriorate much quicker this winter,” Rosenello argued to the Herald. “It was at the point where, I think, it was clear as day that there was an immediate public safety hazard present at that location.”
What About the Alternatives?
At the time of the prior requests, the DEP had been recommending alternatives it argued would have eliminated the need to move the remaining sand toward the ocean. Instead of regrading what was left, the DEP argued the best thing to do would be to add sand from another source, like Wildwood’s beaches or a mainland mine or quarry, to reinforce the dune and flatten the slope.
In a letter dated May 17, granting the city’s EA request, Colleen Keller, the assistant director of the DEP’s Division of Land Resource Protection, said the division has continued concerns over the city discrediting those methods.
“Increasing the volume/height of the dune would afford more storm protection for NWW, rather than simply displacing volumes from the dune crest. It is still the Department’s position, as relayed to the City in the October 2022 and February 2023 EA denials for the proposed installation of a steel bulkhead, that sand can be reintroduced into the system by trucking material in,” wrote Keller.
A spokesman for the DEP declined the Herald’s request for an interview with Keller. In an email, Larry Hajna, the spokesman, said Keller would not be made available because of pending litigation.
The DEP has remained tight-lipped with regard to North Wildwood and frequent requests from the Herald for interviews with DEP officials have been either declined or ignored.
Recently, in a May 11 letter, the Herald wrote directly to Commissioner Shawn LaTourette, offering him an opportunity to be interviewed by a reporter regarding the DEP’s involvement in North Wildwood. He hasn’t responded. The interview invitation to LaTourette stands.
As stated in the Herald’s letter, LaTourette’s preferences on time and place would be accommodated, with offers made to meet a reporter at the commissioner’s office, on the beaches of North Wildwood, or by phone if his schedule does not allow for either of the other two preferred in-person arrangements.
By the time North Wildwood submitted its third EA since last summer May 10, it was almost certainly too late logistically to pull off one of the DEP’s recommended alternatives prior to Memorial Day.
“Given the City’s stated emergent nature of the work along the NWW beachfront, the Division is conditionally authorizing … activities under this EA to be conducted one time, and not to be repeated without further authorization,” Keller wrote in her May 17 letter to Long, granting approval.
A Sign of Progress?
Neil Yoskin, an attorney for North Wildwood, told the Herald in a May 18 interview that the DEP granting this request doesn’t necessarily mark an improvement in the adversarial relationship that exists between the city and the DEP or signal things may be heading toward some sort of mutual agreement in the context of the overall conflict.
“This is an emergency, that both the city and DEP recognize is an emergency. I think, in the short term, it doesn’t go any further than that,” Yoskin said. “Hope springs eternal, but I simply don’t know. It would be nice to think that’s the case, but it’s too early to tell.”
While the city will have to explain how it plans to mitigate the diminishing effect of the project on the remaining dune within 30 days, Rosenello said he is willing to explore with the DEP even more comprehensive projects.
“It’s obvious that the dune there needs to be completely reconstructed,” said the mayor. “We will obviously be working with the DEP to get that done, whether it be a one off dredge project or if we can figure out a way after the season to do a vehicular back pass. But it certainly can’t wait until the Army Corps project, which is two- to- three-years off.”
That project has long been delayed and, although some progress was made recently when Wildwood and Lower Township signed prerequisite state aid agreements, real estate acquisitions still need to be made by the state involving private property owners.
The DEP reiterated that, despite the approval, the department does not agree with the city’s analysis discrediting alternatives, including back passing, that would add sand brought in from outside the municipality to North Wildwood’s beaches.
In the interview, Rosenello maintained the city’s position that backpassing was not feasible this past off-season, something the city had undertaken at its own expense for several years prior.
What’s Open This Summer?
According to Rosenello, all beach access points from Seventh Avenue south should be open for Memorial Day as a result of the EA. Additionally, he said, access points at Fifth and Sixth Avenues have damage they may be able to be addressed so they can be opened prior to the heart of the season, though they will likely not open for Memorial Day.
Beach paths at Third and Fourth Avenues, which were open last year, will not be open this summer. There is no indication that restrictions will be in place preventing people from walking to these sections of the beach, although, at high tide, there may be no sand to sit on.
“Getting the public access back in was paramount. No matter what you try to do with signage, and even barricades, people are going to go to the beach, they’re going to climb over the barricades, they’re going to go around the barricades, they’re going to cut through the dunes,” Rosenello told the Herald.
Back to Court
Both parties are scheduled to appear in court May 22 in front of Superior Court Judge Michael J. Blee. Blee will hear the DEP’s motion to dismiss the city’s $21 million claim, seeking damages to recuperate their expenses for storm protection and other beachfront work done at the city’s expense but without DEP approval.
North Wildwood argues the DEP’s failure to bring meaningful shore protection to the city was a dereliction of its duty. However, the DEP disputes that assertion and raised questions which remain over whether or not Blee has jurisdiction to hear the merits of the case in the Superior Court’s Chancery Division.
To reach the reporter, Shay Roddy, email email@example.com or call (609) 886-8600 ext. 142.