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Judge: Defiant NJ beach town can sue for $21M in dune costs


CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE, N.J. (AP) — A New Jersey beach town that defied state environmental authorities and fixed its dunes that were seriously eroded by a storm can proceed with a lawsuit seeking to recover $21 million it spent bulking up its shoreline, but cannot build a bulkhead to permanently thwart the waves, a judge ruled Wednesday.

Superior Court Judge Michael Blee issued a restraining order barring North Wildwood from building a bulkhead along a severely eroded section of its shoreline, as it has been threatening to do for months. The city defied the state Department of Environmental Protection and carried out emergency repairs to its beach in October after the remnants of Hurricane Ian chewed huge chunks out of protective sand dunes.

Blee also ordered the city to submit a new request to the DEP for authorization to do emergency repairs in light of what the city says are steadily deteriorating conditions on the beach, which officials say has lost 75% of its sand.

But in what Mayor Patrick Rosenello viewed as a significant victory, the judge allowed North Wildwood to proceed with its own litigation against the state. The city wants to recoup the $21 million it has spent trucking in sand from neighboring beaches over the past decade while waiting for a federal and state beach replenishment project that most of the rest of the Jersey Shore has already gotten.

“I’m very pleased, obviously,” Rosenello said after the judge’s ruling. “We’re going to have to go through the legal and administrative process and hopefully get to a good decision.”

As it has since October, North Wildwood claimed Wednesday that parts of its beaches are at imminent risk of destruction in the next serious storm.

“This is the most erosional site in the state of New Jersey,” said Anthony Bocchi, an attorney for North Wildwood. “Conditions have only worsened in the four months since October. Yes, the dunes have not breached, by the grace of God. We are just lucky.”

Kevin Terhune, a deputy attorney general representing the state, said the immediate danger ended when Ian left the area in October, and noted that the city’s dire predictions have not come to pass.

The DEP declined to comment on the judge’s ruling. It previously said the work North Wildwood wants to do could actually make erosion worse, and would likely harm environmentally sensitive areas.

In October, North Wildwood sought permission from the state to do emergency repair work on the beach, including construction of a bulkhead and the placement of temporary traffic-style barriers in front of its lifeguard headquarters building. The DEP allowed the temporary barriers but denied the other requested work.

But North Wildwood did repairs anyway, including moving sand from one section of beach to another, which was forbidden by the state in the absence of a permit. And it has amassed building materials and construction equipment on the shoreline in case it won permission from the court to build a bulkhead, which remains off the table for now.

The disagreement between North Wildwood and the state stretches back more than a decade. The state notes that North Wildwood continues to flout a 2020 order to restore 12 acres (5 hectares) of mature, vegetated dunes that were removed for a different unauthorized seawall project.

While most of the Jersey Shore’s 127-mile (204-kilometer) coastline got replenished beaches in the years after Superstorm Sandy hit in 2012, North Wildwood has not. The city is part of a proposed multi-town federal and state beach replenishment project also involving Wildwood, Wildwood Crest and Lower Township.

Numerous legal and real estate agreements must be finalized before that can happen, and that project likely can’t start until the fall of 2024 at the earliest, the state estimated in August.

In the meantime, the city is keeping its collective fingers crossed.

“If there is a moderate storm, it is over,” Bocchi told the judge. “There is zero beach left.”

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