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Wednesday, April 24, 2024

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Shore Towns Would Like It to Be Easier to Work With DEP

Shown is a file photo of a Stone Harbor beach.

By Christopher South

COURT HOUSE – The municipal governments in Cape May County shore towns understand the importance of beaches and beach access to the local economy. One could even say without the beaches there would be no economy. But some shore town leaders feel the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is making it difficult to provide beach amenities that tourists demand or even to open their beaches to people. 
Recently, officials in two shore towns blasted the DEP for the way the department operates, which they say doesn’t take into account the link between beaches and the economy, as well as the towns’ desire to protect property and lives. 
The DEP website says, “DEP employees in dozens of programs continue to advance innovative strategies to safeguard and enhance New Jersey’s air, water and land, and the health of its residents.”
Their mission is “to protect environmental quality and public health, and create vibrant, sustainable communities, the DEP embraces these principles and priorities: follow the law, use the best available science, listen to all sides, find the best balance, and be transparent and honest with the public.”
The way the DEP acts on those principles is sometimes baffling or frustrating for local officials. According to Avalon Administrator Scott Wahl, “Avalon views beach nourishment projects with a primary benefit of protecting the community from severe coastal storms, and with an important secondary benefit as a driver for tourism.”
He said Mayor Martin Pagliughi and his wife Lynda have been involved in the Jersey Shore Partnership for years, lobbying for more money to be included in the Shore Protection Fund. 
However, Wahl does not downplay the significance of healthy beaches to the economy.
“An investment of a beach project is just that, an investment, and not an expense. It also preserves the critical economic engine of tourism that is fueled by sand on the beach. There are very few, if any, business interests in our region that do not benefit from beach projects,” Wahl said. “I recall a conversation I had years ago with then-Congressman Frank LoBiondo who shared with me that at times it is difficult to convince a colleague from Nebraska on why shore projects should be continually funded.”
Wahl said there is an obligation to protect environmental assets but said the efforts to protect these assets must be based on science and fact. 
“Absent both science and fact, public policy should be discussed and, at times, challenged. Avalon has raised concerns with certain policies with multiple entities when we question the value of the policy or program and its benefit to our citizens and environment,” Wahl said. 
Wahl said he didn’t believe the DEP is too far removed from the shore, as some have suggested. He said Avalon has a continuing dialogue with the DEP on existing programs and policies. 
Stone Harbor is a town where the borough administrator recently called the DEP “hopelessly incompetent.” Its mayor, Judith Davies-Dunhour said she didn’t know if inland towns or North Jersey towns are treated differently, but she is frustrated with dealing with the DEP. 
“I guess it’s probably inherent in the bureaucracy,” she said. 
She said Stone Harbor’s experience with the DEP has been one of frustration. She feels, for one thing, that the DEP should take the municipality’s word for something. She said the borough might be faced with a problem that requires it to take action now, and the DEP simply says, “No.” She said the department doesn’t understand that the town doesn’t want to harm the beaches or put the town at risk. 
Stone Harbor applied for an Emergency Authorization (EA) to reopen beach access points and the DEP denied the request. The next day Stone Harbor had a beach rescue and they found it difficult to get first responders on the beach. In such cases, she said, there should be some level of trust in the local officials and not just “rubber stamp” requests.
Davies-Dunhour said permitting through the DEP takes forever, and the process of getting a General Permit (GP) can end if there are personnel changes in the department. She said a GP-2 allows the municipality to  move sand around and do things on the beach. Stone Harbor’s GP-2 expired in September. 
She said Stone Harbor requested a GP-2 permit, and the borough was told it needed a public access plan when the borough submitted it two years prior. She said it is sometimes a double whammy when the borough is dealing with a state agency and a federal agency. Stone Harbor contacted the DEP and said it needed a GP-2 permit, which was denied, and the borough has been struggling with beach replenishment because the federal government is preventing them from taking sand from Hereford Inlet. 
“Nobody is looking at the practical aspects of it. We had pulled sand out for years and it created a vibrant habitat. Pulling sand out of Hereford Inlet helped the environment and the ecology,” she said. 
Davies-Dunhour said the Stone Harbor Point recreational area all came about from pulling sand out of Hereford Inlet. 
She said the DEP treats all areas along the coast by the same standard, and DEP employees are sitting in Trenton making decisions about what needs to happen along the coast.
“They need to get out of their cubicle and come down here and see what’s going on,” she said. 
Davies-Dunhour said it’s not in anyone’s best interest to quibble with state agencies, but she feels the department is still dealing with the effects of Covid. She said it seems the last people to go back to work were state agencies. 
“How far did they get behind? The DEP position should be to help us get things done. We don’t want to fight with people, but sometimes, what are you going to do?” she said. 
The position of North Wildwood has been well-documented. North Wildwood has been moving sand around on its beaches despite being told not to by the DEP. Mayor Patrick Rosenello has said repeatedly that the town would do what was necessary to protect lives and property. 
In Wildwood, City Manager Steve O’Connor said he doesn’t think enforcing environmental regulations is necessarily incompatible with supporting tourism. He said, on the contrary, protecting the environment is essential to having a vibrant tourist economy. However, he feels the DEP could be more flexible with regulations that restrict routine raking of beaches, and could be more open to allowing limited, permanent structures on beaches such as beach patrol and security stations, and restrooms. 
O’Connor said he believes the DEP has been unwilling to provide effective assistance to North Wildwood’s effort to counter eroding beaches, calling it a “glaring mistake.” He said, while he understands the DEP must be thorough in its compliance with regulations, the department can delay critical projects and escalate construction costs.
O’Connor echoed the sentiment of some other shore town officials about the need for the DEP to consider projects on their individual merits. He pointed to the joint U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and DEP project, an attempt to build a dune and beach berm from Hereford Inlet to Cape May Inlet. O’Connor said the project would cost millions of dollars and is one that Wildwood doesn’t need. 
“With the size of the city’s beaches, coupled with the annual accretion of sand, that provides a better natural safeguard against ocean flooding than perhaps any shore community on the Jersey Coast,” he said. O’Connor said water from the back bay is the biggest threat of nuisance flooding.
He said the DEP is easily accessible to discuss issues, but it’s not necessarily easy to reach a reasonable agreement. O’Connor said he would like to see more coordination and communication between various divisions within the DEP. 
Wildwood Crest Mayor Don Cabrera said he thinks everyone understands the role of the DEP. He said, however, there has to be some room for practicality in a beach community where they have a short time to support tourism and allow businesses to make money, and for vacationers to enjoy the shore. However, he sees the DEP as often looking at things through a one-size-fits-all approach. 
“Sometimes things don’t always fit in the same hole,” he said. 
Cabrera said, just like Wildwood, the borough has 1,500 to 2,00o feet of beach that is protecting lives and property in Wildwood Crest. He said the DEP might consider adopting a policy for tourist areas. 
“Maybe there should be a whole classification for tourism. What is the municipality trying to do? And they should understand that the people who come here for tourism pay taxes that support the state. The practical side gets missed,” he said. “The bottom line is, at the end of day, there needs to be more consideration of tourism.”
Again, echoing other towns’ officials, Cabrera said the DEP has to consider that the town knows what it needs. For example, Wildwood Crest is refurbishing its beach pier. He said there are dunes on each side that are catching water. The borough has asked to be allowed to remove some of the sand that is holding the water, protecting a tourism amenity, while not continuing to spend tax money on repairs. 
“We are trying to do the right thing. It shouldn’t come down to a fight,” he said.
Cabrera would also like to see a faster turn-around time on permits, saying it sometimes takes a year or two to get decisions.
Mayor Jay Gillian said his town has no problems working with the DEP, speaking briefly after a meeting at the county Administration Building. Gillian said, “We try to work with the DEP,” said Gillian. 
Ocean City and Sea Isle City Business Administrator George Savastano said, “The same goes for Sea Isle.”
Thoughts? Questions? Email csouth@cmcherald.com or call 609-886-8600 ext. 128.

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