The focus of how to resolve a dispute between the City of North Wildwood and the state Department of Environmental Protection over shore protection continues to be on reaching an all-encompassing settlement, attorneys for both sides affirmed.
At a Tuesday, Nov. 28, hearing in Cape May County Superior Court, lawyers for the city and the DEP addressed concerns raised by Judge James H. Pickering Jr. that the case was not proceeding according to schedule by telling him how their discussions had developed and informing him of a meeting they planned to have in Trenton on Thursday, Nov. 30.
Pickering said written discovery demands submitted by the parties in August had yet to be answered, even though they were due in October. But during the case management conference held on Zoom, lawyers told the judge that was mostly because they had spent most of their time talking about a global settlement.
“There has been a shift in focus more recently in terms of the parties’ interactions in seeking to set up settlement negotiations. We’re happy to report that the parties are meeting … in Trenton, with multiple people there on both sides, in order to take, hopefully, what will be a big step toward trying to resolve this matter,” Anthony S. Bocchi, a lawyer for North Wildwood, told Pickering. “Hopefully, we can try to get this case resolved.”
Bocchi said in court the settlement meeting Nov. 30 would be a first meeting and then, hopefully, there would be a subsequent meeting, as the parties try to work toward a resolution avoiding further litigation.
Dianna E. Shinn, a deputy attorney general representing the DEP, told the judge the parties were working toward a “global settlement” that would resolve the entire dispute between the department and North Wildwood.
“There are multiple matters currently pending in the Office of Administrative Law, related to some outstanding enforcement violations, that both sides are looking to attempt to settle,” Shinn said.
“There are pending permit applications that we would like to discuss, that could potentially resolve some of those violations. And the Superior Court litigation would be tied into these settlement discussions because everything really goes hand in hand and both sides agree taking a global approach makes the most sense for everything that we’re dealing with in this case.”
Pickering said that if both parties had an agreement regarding the deadline to respond to written discovery he was fine with it, but he did not seem as interested in how a breach of contract claim, the lone count remaining before the Superior Court, factored into the settlement of the overall dispute. North Wildwood’s claim, which seeks $21 million in damages, alleges the DEP failed to honor three state aid contracts it entered with the city, which required the DEP to provide adequate shore protection.
“You’re arguing over grains of sand in addition to a contract claim,” the judge said. “I am not going to let those grains of sand stop me from trying to move this breach of contract claim. There either is a legitimate breach of contract claim or there isn’t.”
In response to a question from the judge, Bocchi wouldn’t offer a number on a monetary settlement demand, but said the parties were working to develop a settlement framework.
Bocchi said he is leaving the firm he has been working for since the inception of the case, Cullen and Dykman LLP, and said that transition has made things more difficult. He said the case is coming with him to the new firm he is starting at the beginning of January.
Shinn, the DEP’s lawyer, said the same individuals working to answer the discovery demands for the state are working on the settlement, and resources have been directed more in the settlement direction. She also pointed to other complicating factors, like recent emergency authorizations for work in front of the city’s beach patrol headquarters.
“There’s also been other things outside of the settlement and this case, regarding North Wildwood, that the department has worked on as well. There was another emergency application they had to work on. That was approved. So, we have been working diligently on all things North Wildwood at the department,” Shinn said.
Larry Hajna, a DEP spokesman, told the Herald the department would likely reserve comment on the outcome of the settlement meeting, but that he would double-check. He did not provide a comment prior to publication.
Bocchi could not be reached for comment by a reporter. North Wildwood Mayor Patrick Rosenello told the Herald he was not part of the settlement meeting in Trenton Nov. 30, but could not be reached for further comment on the outcome.
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