Margate's dunes rejection may be overridden

This dune in Margate would be joined by others under an Army Corps of Engineers project, but many local voters are opposed to the plan.
This dune in Margate would be joined by others under an Army Corps of Engineers project, but many local voters are opposed to the plan. (AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer)
Posted: November 10, 2013

MARGATE, N.J. - Voters in this resort south of Atlantic City have rejected a plan for a dune project, despite Sandy's thrashing of the Jersey Shore a year ago - when in hours, one storm washed away as much sand from the beaches and dunes as it normally would take a decade to remove.

In Tuesday's election, 65 percent of the 2,292 residents who cast ballots said no to the $20 million Army Corps of Engineers' fully federally funded project. The corps wants to construct 12-foot-high dunes along the 1.5-mile-long beachfront.

The vote, in a nonbinding referendum, also flies in the face of a plan by Gov. Christie to build a 127-mile dune line from Sandy Hook to Cape May to protect the coast against future storms.

Margate is the only municipality in the state that allows voters to decide whether dune projects are built, as a result of a 2001 ordinance. The city has fewer than a dozen property owners who have not signed easements to allow dune projects to move forward.

Christie's plan appears to pave the way for the state to seize easements from those property owners, bypassing the potential for years of legal wrangling between the residents and the municipality and moving ahead with the dune-building despite the referendum results.

Those opposed to the dune project, led by resident Dan Gottlieb, called Tuesday's vote "an overwhelming no" based on questions about whether dunes add enough protection to homes and property along the Shore to outweigh the costs of building and replenishing them.

Gottlieb's group, called Margate Residents Questioning the Beach Project, also contends that a strong bulkhead system that runs the length of the beach provides enough reinforcement against storm damage.

The beaches and bulkhead along Margate's oceanfront do look strong, and the strands are relatively wide heading into the Shore's winter nor'easter season - fattened, some say, by sand migration from Ventnor's beaches next door.

Some have said the dunes would ruin their ocean views and could diminish the investment value of beachfront homes. But a landmark settlement of $1 was reached in September between the state and a Harvey Cedars couple with regard to their Long Beach Island oceanfront home. The couple sued over the alleged loss of value of their home because of a dune project. After years of legal fighting, the settlement states that municipalities cannot enact or enforce ordinances or regulations that would interfere with the state's plans to build dunes as part of flood-mitigation efforts.

"Right now, we feel with the structural integrity we have with our bulkhead system, that the cost benefit [of building a new dune system] isn't what we would like it to be," Gottlieb said.

Margate officials had been undecided about building the dunes, with one member of the City Commission against the plan and another in favor of it, according to Mayor Michael Becker, who said he remained the neutral member of the three-member panel.

But an executive order signed by the governor after the Harvey Cedars settlement could nullify Margate's vote, according to state officials.

Christie's order is designed to streamline dune construction up and down the coast along with other flood-management measures, eliminating the need for local approvals. A Christie spokesman this week said there is "no exception for Margate" or any other municipality along the coastline.

And the governor had a message for the Margate holdouts when he participated in a radio interview in September on the topic: "I gave people an opportunity to come forward voluntarily. Now we're taking it. For anyone looking to litigate us, let me make it really clear: We're not going to pay your legal fees after you lose. And look what happened with the Harvey Cedars couple - one dollar."



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