Margate to State: Dunes based on "stale data"

JMARGATE05P Eminent Domain Court Hearing
Stephen M. Eisdorfer, lawyer for the state, got a witness for Margate to admit that any coastline model can be problematic.

ATLANTIC CITY - The City of Margate bellied up to the no-dunes bar in an Atlantic City courtroom Thursday, arguing that the state and the Army Corps of Engineers improperly relied on 20-year-old data and old models of the coastline to justify a beachfront dune project ordered by Gov. Christie.

"It's almost the perfect storm in reaching the wrong decision," civil engineer Charles Rooney, a former Army Corps employee, testified.

Margate, one of the trio of "selfish" towns singled out by Christie during his recent trip back to New Jersey during last month's winter storm, does not want the state to be allowed to use eminent domain to seize 87 city-owned lots along the beachfront it needs to proceed with building the dune.

Residents voted twice in referendums to oppose any dune project for their beachfront, which is protected by bulkheads. Christie is attempting to build dunes along the entire 127-mile coastline, but has been stymied in Margate, Point Pleasant, and Bay Head.

Superior Court Judge Julio Mendez is being asked to rule that the state's actions were "arbitrary and capricious" in proceeding with the dune project and rejecting alternatives that Margate says would do less harm to its beaches and economic underpinnings.

Two experts for Margate - coastal geology professor Robert Young of Western Carolina University and Rooney - testified that the corps never updated its data or modeling when it was asked by Congress in 2013 to use current science and engineering standards to leverage funds for its shore protection projects.

Rooney called the data used by the Army Corps "stale," and Young said the Corps used so-called "SBEACH" modeling from 1993 in Ocean City to formulate a project.

Margate lawyer Thomas Biemer, of Philadelphia's Dilworth Paxson law firm, said the corps also rejected a "bulkhead and berm" alternative to the dunes without first subjecting it to a full three levels of analysis. And he said the corps ignored 20 years of evidence from subsequent storms.

City Commissioner Maury Blumberg testified that the bulkhead has protected the city from the ocean side for a century and that the vast majority of damage from storms is from the bay side.

Margate Mayor Michael Becker said before the hearing that the city was still waiting for a grant of $3.5 million to address bayside flooding, promised to it before its opposition to dunes. He said that when he last inquired about the grant, he was met with "What grant?" as a response.

On Thursday, the first day of an expected three-day hearing, Young was asked about the effects of relying on old data when preparing a shore protection plan. Biemer said the bulkheads are now two to three feet higher than they were in 1993. "Garbage in, garbage out," he said. "You wouldn't reach for 1993 data if you have current data."

Under cross-examination by the state's attorney, Stephen M. Eisdorfer, Young acknowledged the vagaries of relying on any model for coastline projects: "I find the use of all of these models to be problematic from a big picture."

He also said bulkheads will cause a beach to erode.

Rooney said relying on bad data and old technology, and ignoring evidence from 20 years of coastal storms, was not the way a "rational" scientist would proceed.

Margate says an original alternative to its bulkhead, with a fortified berm, or high-tide beach, is all it needs to protect against storms from the ocean front.

Blumberg showed photos he took during the recent storm that showed the bulkheads "repelling" ocean water as it approached. "Typically, if not always, the majority of storm-related damage comes from the bay. Damage related to the ocean is minor," he said.

Christie pointed to photos of bayside flooding during the storm and blamed that on Margate's failure to agree to oceanside dunes.

The state introduced evidence showing that during Hurricane Sandy, Margate bulkheads sustained $350,000 in damage; stairs, ramps and road ends at the beach front sustained $100,000; and cleanup of sand and debris totaled $2.4 million.

But Blumberg said the blizzard of sand that descended on beach blocks was from piles of sand the city had pushed toward the bulkhead prior to the storm.

He said the dune system proposed by the state would consume 30 percent of the city's beaches, reduce handicapped access, and create additional maintenance and cleanup costs.

"The project will significantly change the way my kids, my parents, enjoy the beach," Blumberg said. "The financial implications for us as city fathers are astounding. We will be spending money for 50 years."

arosenberg@phillynews.com

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