Margate to U.S. Army Corps: Get off our beach! [photos]

With angry residents packed into the meeting room at Margate’s historic City Hall, not to mention spilling into the hall, onto the front steps and out to the sidewalk, Margate’s Board of Commissioners voted unanimously Wednesday, Aug. 2 to take legal action to stop an Army Corps of Engineers dune project.

“We decided as a city to hire an attorney to seek an immediate temporary restraining order” to stop the work, said Margate Mayor Michael S. Becker after the meeting. The three-member Board of Commissioners that serve as the seaside city’s governing body is set to have its regular meeting in the same spot at 4:30 p.m. Aug. 3, but Becker said the city decided to have a special meeting earlier to more quickly react to the dune issue.

The project has always been deeply unpopular in Margate, which sued unsuccessfully to stop it, but after water collected behind the dunes, creating blocks of ponds that locals have derisively dubbed “Lake Christie,” it seems fair to call the project locally reviled.

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Heavy rain over the weekend created pools of water on the beach. Some residents blame the Army Corps of Engineers who are building dunes on the beach. (Bill Barlow/for WHYY)

Many of the speakers in the beyond-capacity meeting room spoke of concerns over health hazards from the standing water, and of difficulties accessing the beach. Some put their concerns in the direst terms possible, fearing spreading sickness from the water and from mosquitoes, or even an end to the city itself.

Others pointed out that a person only gets so many summers, and said this one has been wasted because of the project.

“I counted the days for the last six months to be here. I’m just heartbroken,” one woman told the commissioners. “I’m begging you to just fight this and win.”

The Army Corps of Engineers has a $63 million project to add beaches and dunes the length of Absecon Island, which includes Atlantic City, Ventnor, Longport and Margate. As the project moves south, about two blocks of beach  must be closed to public access. While the other municipalities have welcomed the work, Margate tried to stop it, arguing that it was unneeded.

Work was set to take place in Ventnor and Margate at about the same time this summer, but a late change meant Margate saw the closed beaches through July and into August. The Army Corps blamed maintenance schedules for the dredges that pump sand onto the beach and the weather, but many locals assume it was payback for their resistance.

Part of Margate’s argument against the dunes centered on drainage. Many Margate streets along the beachfront drain through the bulkhead and out to the ocean. But after torrential rainfall over the weekend, the water collected on the street side of the dunes. The Army Corps is pumping the water out, but the ponds remain.

Several residents at the meeting said the problem isn’t rain, it’s because the corps dug below the water level.

“As any 8-year-old with a shovel and a bucket knows already, the closer you get to the ocean, the sooner you’re going to hit water,” said Dan Gottlieb, a resident who had long fought the dune project.

“I hate to be right in this situation. I feel no vindication,” he said.

He expressed concern that if the beach eroded away, the city would not be able to legally remove the constructed dune.

“What happens if all we have left is a giant dune sitting in the middle of the beach?”

“If that day comes, I’m making a call to Frank (Ricciotti, Margate’s public works director). I’ll say get the bulldozers ready, we’re taking it down,” Becker responded, drawing cheers from the crowd, and calls to get the bulldozers out there immediately.

Also at the meeting, Becker said the city has never signed a contract with the Army Corps, and will not pay the local share typically required of municipalities for similar federal projects.

“We will not pay a penny now, and we will not pay a penny in the future,” he said. The city spent about $300,000 on fighting the project so far, and Wednesday’s resolution approves spending up to an additional $25,000 in legal fees. After the meeting, Becker called it money well spent, suggesting the city could have been on the hook for millions of dollars if it contributed to the cost of the project. He said he was not certain what attorney would be hired for the work.

But stopping the work won’t save the summer of 2017.

Ed Berger, the president of the Margate Business Association, said the project has meant a deep hit for all businesses in Margate. Cleaning services saw a drop when visitors didn’t use their summer homes, restaurants and pizzerias have fewer customers, and some say their businesses are off by up to 40 percent compared to last year.

A resident told the commissioners that this is the first time she has not had a single summer visitor at her home, which means less spent shopping and at restaurants. Now, she is considering leaving town for August because of the project, something she previously could not have imagined doing.

Another speaker said there is no way to recover what was lost, saying “It’s destroyed this summer.”

Steve Rochette, a spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers, said the corps would not comment on any pending litigation.

“We’ll continue to coordinate with the state on all project-related issues,” he wrote in an email Tuesday.

For now, he said, the Army Corps is focusing on pumping the water out from behind the  dunes, and they will change the elevation of the basin area, making them a foot higher.

“We’re also moving forward with building elevated temporary walkways between the street ends and the dunes to help restore access,” Rochette wrote in response to emailed questions.

Becker said tomorrow’s commission meeting will also be open to citizen comment.

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