What will it take to stop Jersey Shore town from bulldozing its beach? $12M in fines hasn’t done it

DEP Commissioner Shawn LaTourette warns that the city’s conduct jeopardizes funding for future beach protection projects.

A bulldozer reshapes a sand dune

A bulldozer reshapes a sand dune on the North Wildwood, N.J. beach on May 22, 2023, carrying out emergency work approved by New Jersey officials. But the city did another dune reshaping weeks later that has drawn the threats of additional penalties beyond the $12 million the state has already imposed for unauthorized beach work. (AP Photo/Wayne Parry)

Not even $12 million worth of fines is enough to stop a Jersey Shore town from bulldozing sand on its beach to bolster eroded spots in defiance of state environmental officials.

The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection says North Wildwood once again carried out unauthorized repairs to its eroding dunes, most recently on June 5 without state approval and in violation of a February court order imposed by a judge trying to sort out the decade-long sand storm between the two parties.

On Thursday, DEP Commissioner Shawn LaTourette wrote to North Wildwood officials offering one final attempt to resolve the matter without imposing additional penalties, and warning that the city’s conduct jeopardizes funding for future beach protection projects.

Describing himself as “perplexed” by North Wildwood’s actions, LaTourette wrote that the city “has repeatedly engaged in destructive and illegal conduct in the name of tourism and, supposedly, public safety. This is wrongheaded and it must stop.”

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Mayor Patrick Rosenello said the state is to blame for failing to facilitate the same sort of government beach replenishment project in his city that most of the rest of the Jersey Shore has been receiving for decades.

“The DEP needs to spend more time doing the job of protecting the Jersey Shore and less time on threats and intimidation,” he said. “If they would just do their job, none of this would have happened, and all of it goes away. Truly amazing.”

The city recently erected signs at the entrances to its beaches with photos and phone numbers of LaTourette and Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy, with a message saying, “These two individuals are directly responsible for the state’s inaction on replenishing North Wildwood’s beaches.”

North Wildwood appears unfazed by the state’s fines and threats of more to come: It is suing the state for $21 million, to recoup what it says is the cost of trucking sand in to its eroded beaches for a decade.

The standoff between the city — a prime vacation destination for Philadelphians — and the state centers on the fact that North Wildwood has been last in line for beach replenishment carried out by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, due in part to difficulty in gathering necessary approvals from property owners. That long-sought project is finally moving forward, but won’t happen until at least 2025.

Because of that, parts of the city’s beaches have become badly eroded, prompting the city to act on its own to shore up the dunes when it feels they have become endangered — often without permission from the state.

The DEP says that each action involving heavy equipment moving sand around has weakened and reduced the height of the dunes, actually making things worse while destroying natural plants and animal habitat.

The two parties reached a temporary truce in late May when erosion created steep cliffs where beach entrances had been, a dangerous condition just before the start of the Memorial Day holiday weekend. The state granted a one-time authorization to do emergency repairs to the beachfront on that occasion.

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It did not approve the June 5 dune work, for which the city sought approval the next day, after the work was virtually completed. But Rosenello said the city notified the DEP in advance of what it planned to do on the beach.

He also said the city considered the erosion preceding the June 5 work to be an extension of the same problem that led to the state granting emergency authorization in May. Therefore, he said, the city was justified in fixing the dunes again.

“It was the exact same work in the exact same place,” he said. “There’s so little of this dune left that we don’t need a direct hit from a hurricane for it to be completely gone.”

LaTourette said the DEP “has been willing to resolve millions in penalties owed by the city for its repeated illegal and environmentally destructive activities.”

But he said North Wildwood must “immediately cease and desist from this pattern and practice of violating the law. You are placing the public safety, environment, and the city’s access to continued financial support for shore protection at risk.”

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