Margate hopes resistance to N.J. dune plan won't backfire

Over a dune at Margate , Atlantic City's skyline looms. Gov. Christie's dune plan would include Margate. AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer
Over a dune at Margate , Atlantic City's skyline looms. Gov. Christie's dune plan would include Margate. AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer
Posted: January 16, 2014

MARGATE, N.J. - They wanted to be the little beach town that roared, but for now, in Margate, they are tiptoeing.

Tiptoeing over what might be the fallout from telling the Christie administration they do not wish to go along with the state's post-Sandy plan to build a dune system the entire length of the coastline.

City Solicitor John Scott Abbott warned the town recently to abandon this stand, despite a nonbinding referendum proposal that passed in November opposing the dune project.

"We're currently in the process of applying for grants for our bulkheads and a storm-water pump," Abbott said last month, as quoted in the Atlantic City Press. "Does anybody think this governor won't pull the plug?"

Now, watching all the fallout over a bridge in North Jersey, leaders in this South Jersey beach town are being extra-careful to play nice to avoid having a Dunegate debacle of retribution descend on the attempt to opt out.

At least in Margate, the bridge is privately owned.

But the beaches are ripe for state taking, as an angry DEP Commissioner Bob Martin made clear.

"Rest assured, the statewide project will be constructed, including in Margate," Martin wrote to City Commissioner Brenda Taube, in a letter made public by the Department of Environmental Protection. "If your municipality would like to have a seat at the table in deciding how the beach will be used and managed in the future, now is the time to act."

Privately, Margate leaders hope the controversy over the George Washington Bridge might help their cause, making the newly chastened Christie team wary of another "David and Goliath" battle, as one official put it.

In November, voters in Margate made their feelings clear in the nonbinding referendum, and their city leaders then communicated that to Trenton.

"We agreed to uphold the will of the people," Mayor Mike Becker said. A planned meeting in Trenton to discuss the matter with Martin was scuttled.

"The commissioner did not see any reason for me to come to Trenton," said Becker, who is still trying to arrange a meeting.

Becker, a Republican, worries that the opposition to the dunes will lead to acts of eminent domain by the state to take easements, if not the entire beach.

Opponents see the dunes as costly, unsightly, and unnecessary shore protection for Margate, which saw 90 percent of Sandy flooding claims emanate from the bay side of town.

Residents are also, as Abbott mentioned, concerned that their $3.25 million bid for the protection they do want - better bulkheads on the bay side - will be turned down.

"It's not the George Washington Bridge," Becker said. "The other side is, I believe, and I've been told by the DEP and our sources, that the state can come in here and claim our beaches by eminent domain."

DEP spokesman Larry Hajna said that June grant request and others like it have not been ruled on for fiscal year 2014. "No decision has been made on this request or any of the other funding requests made for FY 14, except for the Route 35 sheeting project and some emergency sand trucking," Hajna wrote in an e-mail.

Dune opponents are well aware that Christie's Executive Order No. 140 - which authorized the use of eminent domain to gain control of easements held by private or public entities - has teeth.

Dan Gottlieb, the outspoken leader of the Margate Citizens Questioning the Beach Project, which successfully placed and then passed the anti-dune referendum proposal, dismissed any relevance to the current Christie crisis. "It's more about convincing the commissioner of the DEP that we want to respect the will of the electorate," Gottlieb said. "I would hope they're sensitive to that, and so far they've shown that they're not."

Abbott said Tuesday he believes any further action by Margate - such as a lawsuit, as some in town are urging - would surely invite negative fallout.

"What do you think?" Abbott said, laughing. "Do you think [grant applications] might be jeopardized if we don't cooperate? We would be better served at the negotiating table. I believe what they say, that they'll take our beach."

Becker just wants to work something out to avoid having the beaches become a state park. "The beaches are Margate's crown jewel. We have to find a reasonable way to work this out."



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