Margate, trying to save its 'crown jewel,' heads to court today to stop dune project

Residents in Margate turn out for a meeting in which commissioners voted to seek a court injunction to block the dune project they say is destroying their beaches.

MARGATE, N.J. — They are trying to save their summer, their beaches, the economy of their town — all of which people in Margate say are being threatened by a $63 million beach replenishment and dune project ordered by Gov. Christie and being carried out by the Army Corps of Engineers at the height of summer.

They did not want the project begun, and now they want it stopped.

With Olympic-size pools of standing, fetid water being pumped overnight from behind newly constructed dunes stretching for about a half-mile of the town, elected officials in Margate voted Wednesday to seek a temporary restraining order on a project they unsuccessfully fought for years. [Update: The city’s request for an injunction will be heard Thursday at 1:30 p.m. before Judge Julio Mendez in Atlantic County Superior Court in Atlantic City.]

“There’s nothing more important than our beach,” Margate Commissioner Maury Blumberg told the applauding audience of locals and owners of second homes in the Shore town, who overflowed a courtroom in the old City Hall, a building heavily damaged during Hurricane Sandy by bayside flooding.

“The beach is in fact our crown jewel,” Blumberg said. “And this project is killing us.”

The officials and people who fought the dunes say their worst fears, and the predictions of their experts, have been realized, with the situation heightened as it affects the town during the cherished summer season.

“We’ve all lost the summer,” said Mayor Michael Becker. “I want this project stopped immediately.”

Jordan Rand, the city’s attorney, said the legal action seeking to halt the project was filed Thursday in Superior Court in Atlantic County (see below) against the state Department of Environmental Protection and the contractor Weeks Marine. The city is arguing that the state’s “incomprehensible miscalculation” about drainage will “afflict the entirety of Margate’s beaches.” Margate officials fought in state and federal court to prevent the dunes, which they argued were unnecessary and would lead to the kinds of drainage issues seen in the last week. Using the beach “as a storage basin for contaminated storm water” threatens health and safety and, wrote Rand, “renders Margate’s beaches increasingly unusable.”

The city’s expert witness, engineer Charles Dutill, described a scenario featuring the very pools of standing water that materialized in the last week.  A federal judge dismissed his predictions as “fantastical.” The state had said its plan was to dig trenches behind the dunes to collect storm water but assured the judge that the water would percolate into the sand within 24 to 36 hours. The state acknowledged this week that that did not happen.

The state Department of Environmental Protection did not answer a request for comment Wednesday.

U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo, a strong proponent of the Army Corps project, said on Twitter that he had “Viewed personally & Spoken with Army Corps, NJ DEP and Mayor. Definitely aware & working on solution. Frank.”

Ed Berger, president of the Margate Business Association, said the city’s businesses were bearing the brunt of a crisis that has closed a half-dozen beaches and left residents unable to get from their homes to the ocean and fearful of a health hazard. The timing of the project has been blamed on schedule issues with Weeks Marine, but many in town believe the state is retaliating against the town for its stubborn opposition to  Christie’s plan.

Berger said people were staying away from Margate this summer.

“All of our businesses are feeling the negative impact of the dune project,” Berger said. “These aren’t big businesses. We all have about 12 or 14 weeks to make our entire year.  Our store traffic is down significantly; our restaurant traffic is down significantly.”

One takeout restaurant reported business off by 40 percent, he said. Stores in the north end of town say they are not seeing the foot traffic.

“With what’s going on on the beaches, a lot of visitors aren’t coming in to our city,” he said. “They’re just not here. People who come down to visit people with summer homes are not coming to visit them.”

Long term, people are worrying about property values and ratables. “One of my Realtors had a deal lined up for a $3 million beach-block house that’s not going through,” Berger said. “Rentals are way off. It’s a wait-and-see situation.”

Blumberg said he wanted the beaches brought to the way they were before the project began. Officials said the state’s proposed drainage solution — outfall pipes — would cost upward of $10 million.

“This cannot be a  trial-and-error process for them,” Blumberg said. “They have to fill in those trenches back to where they were. They have to bring them back to the way they were and come up with a solution. And that solution for me is not outfall pipes strewn throughout our city.”