Plenty of oceanfront homeowners at the Jersey shore are unhappy with GOP Gov. Chris Christie’s plan to widen beaches and build protective sand dunes along the state’s entire 127-mile coastline.
Among them is Lawrence Bathgate, one of the Republican Party’s top national fundraisers, whose help Christie likely would seek in a 2016 presidential run.
Bathgate calls the dune plan “stupid” and wasteful; he and other neighbors say the plan violates several core Republican principles, including private property rights and fiscal restraint. So they’ve raised $5 million to build a protective rock wall along the coast, the final phase of which will start Monday, and want to be exempted from the statewide shore protection plan.
“Stupid is stupid; you can call it what it is,” said Bathgate, who was the national Republican finance chairman under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush and who raised money for both of George W. Bush’s presidential campaigns. “The science and the economics don’t support what they are doing. This sand will wash away in short order.”
Bathgate, who has owned a home on the beach here since 1972, said he has not spoken with Christie about the issue. He would not say whether he plans to do so in the future and declined to discuss whether the issue would influence his willingness to help Christie with a presidential campaign.
“We will cross that bridge if we get to it,” he said.
Christie’s press secretary, Michael Drewniak, also would not discuss the political implications of Bathgate’s opposition, instead referencing the governor’s numerous past statements on the dune plan. In April 2013, Christie said at a town hall meeting on storm-tossed Long Beach Island that the dune project would be built – with or without their consent.
“I have no interest in taking your property,” Christie told the audience. “I have no interest in building anything other than a dune. I don’t want to build a road. I don’t want to build a shower. I don’t want to build a hut.”
Christie said opponents “don’t want their views blocked.”
The dune plan is a response to the devastation Superstorm Sandy caused at the Jersey shore in October 2012; Bay Head was among the hardest hit communities. Statewide, Sandy damaged or destroyed 360,000 homes and businesses, at a cost of nearly $37 billion.
Shortly afterward, Christie announced the state would fortify its entire coastline with replenished beaches and – in many but not all spots – protective sand dunes. If property owners refused to sign easements for the work, the state would take the land through the legal process of eminent domain. He has publicly criticized the holdouts, calling them selfish.
“Selfish?” Bathgate asked. “Some of the biggest philanthropists in the country have summer homes in Bay Head. It’s trying to bully people into doing what you want them to do.”
The state originally needed 2,850 public and private easements for the project; that number is now down to 330, a third of them in Bay Head.
Bay Head homeowners say a previous rock wall, built in the 1880s, saved many of their homes from complete destruction during the storm, even though many still suffered serious damage.
So they paid for new rocks to be installed in places that didn’t have them. Thacher Brown, one of those leading the effort, voiced objections to the plan that have been raised by opponents all along the coast: The easements last forever, with no way for owners to reclaim them if the project never gets built. There is no legal guarantee that the new beaches and dunes will be regularly maintained to replace sand lost to erosion, and many object to the state’s stated intention to use eminent domain against holdouts.
They say that the $21 million that would be used on the project’s Bay Head segment would be better spent elsewhere with greater needs, that the work they did on their own has fully protected their town and that Christie is wrong.
“This is all about personal property rights,” Brown said. “As a Republican, he should care about that.”
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