New Jersey environmental officials will allow a shore town to carry out emergency repairs to its badly eroded beachfront, even as they continue a years-long fight with city officials over how best to protect the popular Jersey Shore resort’s fragile coastline.
On Wednesday, the state Department of Environmental Protection told North Wildwood it could reshape three blocks worth of dunes and repair public access points to a condition that they can be safely used in time for the approaching Memorial Day holiday weekend.
The move marked a turning point in a long-running dispute between the city and the state over how to ensure that the beach is wide enough for recreation and to ensure that dunes are sturdy enough to protect the city from coastal storms.
North Wildwood and its surrounding coastal neighbors have not received the periodic beach replenishment projects that most of the rest of the Jersey Shore has been getting for decades, due in part to the difficulty of getting approval from property owners.
As a result, it has experienced serious erosion over the last decade, and says it needs to take immediate emergency steps including shoring up dunes and building another steel sea wall to complement one it already built.
The state has repeatedly denied permission for such work, saying it could actually worsen erosion due to the scouring effect of waves carrying sand along hard barriers like sea walls. It says the city should continue to rely on trucking in sand from mainland quarries. But the city has spent $21 million doing that over the past decade, and is suing the state to recoup those costs.
In a letter to the city the DEP cited the emergency nature of the work to be done in explaining why it is now giving permission for it.
The permission to repair the dunes represented a victory for North Wildwood, even if it proves short-lived.
“What we have been requesting is so obvious that it would have been ridiculous if they said no again,” said Mayor Patrick Rosenello, a Republican. “For them to finally agree with what we’ve been saying is certainly satisfying.”
The federal government has said a beach replenishment in the Wildwoods would begin 18 to 24 months after all approvals are granted, Rosenello said.
“Even if we got every approval tomorrow, we’re still looking at 2025 at the earliest before we get that project here,” he said.
Rosenello said trucks should begin moving sand next week, and predicted the repairs would be complete before Memorial Day weekend.
In tangled, ongoing litigation, the state is suing North Wildwood for $12 million over previous unapproved beach repairs. The city is suing the state back to recoup the cost of trucking sand onto the eroded beach.
Numerous violation notices issued by the state remain active, including one that involves work the city did several years ago along a section of beachfront that it said had become badly eroded. The state said the work destroyed 8 acres of vegetated dunes, including 6.7 acres of critical wildlife habitat, and 1.1 acres of freshwater wetlands.
North Wildwood built a vinyl and steel bulkhead for about 10 blocks without state approval, saying it needed to act urgently to protect lives and property. That is separate from the latest bulkhead the city wanted to build, but agreed to forego for now.
Rosenello said the city has reapplied through normal channels for permission to do more extensive beach work instead of seeking emergency approval as it has been since last fall.
Get daily updates from WHYY News!