Almost four years after Superstorm Sandy devastated New Jersey, an ambitious plan to protect vulnerable areas of the Shore is stalled in the courts amid growing doubts about the state’s ability to pay the long-term costs of the project.
Newly released documents reviewed by The Record show taxpayers have already spent more than $4 million in legal fees to battle more than 300 shorefront property owners who want no part of a plan that would erect 25-foot-high dunes along a 14-mile stretch of northern Ocean County that was battered by Sandy.
“We can protect ourselves far better than the state can protect us,’’ said Thacher Brown, one of 14 Bay Head property owners who pooled $2.5 million of their own money to rebuild dunes and revetments Sandy battered across the town’s mile-long waterfront.
“Why,’’ asked Brown, ‘‘should I sign my property over to a government that can’t even find the money to make basic road and bridge repairs?’’
A review of the dune project, a joint venture of the state and federal government that was formally launched in mid-2014, shows that costs to build and maintain the massive sand piles will reach nearly $1 billion in the next 50 years. That cost would cover about 22 miles of shoreline, the Ocean County stretch in addition to an 8-mile-segment of beach front from Atlantic City through the communities of Margate, Ventnor and Longport.
Agreements between the state and the Army Corps of Engineers signed two years ago obligate the federal government to pay for about two-thirds of the overall cost. State taxpayers, however, would still have to come up with more than $372 million in an era when New Jersey faces perennial budget shortfalls, a distressed transportation fund and an underfinanced public pension system.
Most of the spending is planned to go not for building the dunes, but for keeping them stable once they are in place.
Every three to four years, project documents show, the dunes will have to be reshaped and “nourished” with plantings and newly imported sand — more than 12 million cubic yards over the next 50 years will be needed.
In interviews, state and federal officials acknowledged that while some federal funds for current dune construction are already in place, finding money in the future will remain an ongoing challenge.
But they said the government is deeply committed to the project and has a long track record of spending to preserve the Shore, the engine of the state’s $43 billion annual tourist trade. In the end, policymakers know the shore must be a spending priority because in many ways it defines the whole state, they said.
“It’s an investment in our economy, our way of life, our identity,” said Larry Hajna, a spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection.
Federal officials said that they have been working for 25 years to rebuild and replenish New Jersey beaches and the state has yet to renege on its share of the cost.
“When we’ve been ready to go, they have always been there to hold up their end,’’ said Ed Voigt of the Army Corps’ Philadelphia project.
Voigt, however, acknowledged that the lawsuits from the property owners and others could delay the start of the dune project until next year and its completion until 2018, even as severe weather keeps coming.
The bloc of Ocean County residents fighting the project, he added, may also force the government to back off of a big chunk of the project, at least for now. Voigt said dune work from Seaside Heights north through the lower two-thirds of Mantoloking is likely to begin first while Bay Head and Point Pleasant Beach fight in court.
A decision to break up the project would be a departure for the Army Corps. “Obviously, in projects this big and complex you don’t want to proceed piecemeal,” Voigt said. “But it looks like we may have to draw a line.’’
Bids on the lower end of the Ocean County project, as well as the segment near Atlantic City, could be issued as early as September with work beginning early next year.
Delaying the project would be a triumph for Bay Head, a wealthy enclave of yacht clubs and wood-shingled mansions overlooking the sea. Census data lists the median home price in Bay Head at more than $1.3 million, about $1 million more than the average for Ocean County as a whole.
Although out-of-towners can enjoy the beach for a day if they buy an $8 pass, there are no public restrooms and no parking lots. Food is strictly prohibited on the beach.
Governor Christie ripped the litigious property owners in a news conference in January, after severe weather damaged parts of Point Pleasant Beach and other areas where residents are still fighting the dunes. The property owners, he said, are not only self-centered but endangering their neighbors.
Christie said most property owners affected by the project have already signed easements that deed over a slice of their waterfront property where the dunes will be built. State records show more than 2,000 property owners have signed.
“This should not be being held up by what I really believe are a few very selfish homeowners who do not want to give into the idea that we have to build these dunes,’’ Christie said.
Last week his office again faulted the delays.
“The delays due to resistance by a few standing against these critical projects jeopardizes everyone else around them as we go through yet another hurricane season with these safeguards unfinished,’’ Brian Murray, a spokesman for Christie, said Wednesday.
Longtime Bay Headers, like Brown, who spends summers in the house his grandfather bought, reject suggestions that their opposition to the Army Corps is just the selfish reaction of rich people who want to preserve a cosseted patch of beachfront to the detriment of surrounding towns.
“How is it selfish to reach into your own pocket to build dunes that protect everyone in this community?’’ said Brown, 68, a retired investment broker who resides in Devon, Pa. “We’re putting our money where our mouth is.’’
But neighbors say Bay Head’s intransigence has grounded a project they desperately need.
Just south in Mantoloking, which was literally ripped in half by Sandy flood waters, officials point out that a severe winter storm in January battered new revetments and a vaunted steel barrier put in place to stem flooding. The storm, which washed out large areas of the beachfront and left a cliff-like drop off on the waterfront, brought fresh damage to other stretches of the Shore.
“We are fighting every day to keep the ocean out,’’ said Chris Nelson, a Mantoloking councilman. “This dune project can’t start fast enough.’’
In Mantoloking, more than 30 homes were ripped from their foundations and destroyed during the Sandy disaster. Overall, the storm destroyed or damaged some 350,000 homes and 19,000 businesses in New Jersey, according to the Army Corps.
With severe weather seemingly on the march and water levels expected to rise dramatically over the next century, some experts say efforts to keep out the sea along the Jersey Shore are noble but, ultimately, will fail.
“The costs, the whole idea of perpetually replenishing a beach, is simply unsustainable,’’ said Norbert Psuty, a retired professor from Rutgers University who has spent his life studying shifting sands.
Psuty said excessive development along the shorefront and bays prevents natural forces that build and reshape dunes and their tendency to migrate toward the land.
“The beach, the dunes, are always moving and reshaping themselves,’’ he said. “In the short term you can do patch work, you can move people out of harm’s way. But in the long term you’re not going to be able to survive.’’
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