Margate battles against post-Sandy dunes

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An effort to build or restore dunes along New Jersey’s 127-mile coastline faces opposition from many ocean-front property owners – and one municipality.

In response to damage done by Superstorm Sandy, New Jersey wants to build or restore dunes along its entire 127-mile coastline.

But this effort to protect the Shore from future storms faces opposition from many ocean-front property owners – and one municipality.

Just south of Atlantic City, Margate held a referendum in November in which 65 percent of voters said they didn’t want dunes built. While the referendum was nonbinding, there is a city ordinance that specifies the town needs voters’ approval before going forward with dunes.

“People as a whole don’t like change, and so I think it changes the look of the beaches, it changes access to the beaches,” said Mayor Michael Becker in explaining the “no” vote.

While he suspects that many people might have changed their mind since November’s referendum, Becker won’t say whether he thinks the dunes are a good idea.

“It’s been difficult and I’ve worked hard to uphold the will of the people and we’ll see where we go,” he said.

In a February letter to Becker, the New Jersey Attorney General John Hoffman wrote that Margate’s ordinance requiring voter approval is superseded by an executive order Gov. Chris Christie signed in September, which directs the attorney general to coordinate legal action needed to build the dunes.

In other words, Christie’s order trumps Margate’s ordinance. From the state’s perspective, there shouldn’t be anything stopping Margate from granting the state rights to work on its beaches.

Additionally, Hoffman suggested, Margate could repeal its ordinance.

But residents opposed to the beach project disagree with both those approaches, especially the idea that Christie has the authority to supersede the local ordinance.

“There is no existing or impending emergency in Margate right now,” said Dan Gottlieb, the co-leader of a group called Margate Residents Questioning the Beach Project. (He’s no relation to WHYY’s Dr. Dan Gottlieb). “So the state is trying to hang their hat on Executive Order 140, to force the project onto Margate, and we are questioning the legality, I guess, now, of what the state is trying to use to have the project begin in Margate.”

‘Waste of money’

Gottlieb wants Margate to hire independent counsel to advise the town, and he hopes state officials might sit down for conversations on compromises, which, he suggests, could include a wider beach. He said he doesn’t want to get into a legal battle with the state and hopes it doesn’t come to that.

“We’re not against anything that provides protection, but when you already have protection, and there’s a significant cost to provide protection that won’t last very long in a storm, then we think it’s a waste of money,” he said.

He said he will be fighting the project, even if Margate would be the one interruption in 127 miles of dunes. The bulkhead, a wall holding back earth that runs along all of Margate’s beach, is plenty of protection, he said.

Representatives of the attorney general’s office and the Department of Environmental Protection declined to be interviewed for this story, but the governor has made it clear he will keep fighting for the dunes.

From an original 2,000 holdouts, 600 private-property owners still refuse to grant the state easements to use portions of their land for beach nourishment projects, Christie said at a recent town-hall meeting.

“With those folks, if need be, we’re going to go into court and get the easements,” he said.

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