Governor Chris Christie’s warning of Hurricane Sandy-like destruction of the New Jersey shore will be tested as the worst storm season in three years approaches and beachfront homeowners delay his building protective dunes along all 127 miles of the state’s coast.
Christie, a second-term Republican, has been battling with property owners in court over his plan to erect sand barriers to keep floodwaters at bay. Without signed easements, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers won’t begin work, leaving whole towns like Margate and Mantoloking vulnerable to tidal surges.
The Atlantic basin this year is ripe for 12 named tropical storms, the most since 2013, according to Colorado State University meteorologists. Other forecasters predict as many as 16. Christie, 53, has said that without the dunes, New Jersey won’t be ready to withstand another beating like Sandy. That October 2012 storm, one of the costliest in U.S. history, caused $36.9 billion of damage and slowed New Jersey’s economic recovery.
“We won’t be 100 percent comfortable until this whole beach-replenishment project is completed,” said Mayor Tom Kelaher of Toms River, where more than 10,000 homes were destroyed or damaged by Sandy.
Brick Township, with 1.8 miles (2.9 kilometers) of oceanfront, isn’t waiting for court rulings. It’s spending $600,000 to reconstruct 16-foot sand piles lost in October, when waves driven by offshore Hurricane Joaquin exposed a steel bulkhead.
“Any time there’s a storm — just a simple high tide with a full moon — the waves are bouncing off that wall,” Brick Mayor John Ducey said in an interview. For now, public-works crews and bulldozers are doing what the Army Corps can’t, until construction easements are secured on 158 properties in eight towns.
At risk is the state’s $41.2 billion tourism industry, most of it shore-generated, and some of the most valuable real estate in New Jersey. The four Jersey Shore counties have combined property value, for tax purposes, of $293.5 billion, about a third of the state’s total.
Though federal projects costing hundreds of millions of dollars have put New Jersey’s coastline in its best shape since Sandy, gaps remain in some of the hardest-hit areas.
Homeowner Paul Jeffrey, president of the Ortley Beach Voters and Taxpayers Association, says oceanfront property owners are being short-sighted.
“It’s not much different from building highways and building airports that someone determines is for the public good,” said Jeffrey, 63. Toms River, which governs Ortley, has been reimbursed $1.75 million by the state for sand it’s piled on its beaches after storms in October and January.
While Ortley is popular with middle-class vacationers, towns toward the barrier’s north draw a more moneyed crowd. Actor Joe Pesci owns a home on a bayside island in Lavallette, and makeup company founder Bobbi Brown and her developer husband, Steven Plofker, have a summer home in Bay Head. The Point Pleasant oceanfront vacation house owned by Christie’s brother, Wall Street veteran Todd Christie, is among those that would get added protection from dunes.
“I believe 100 percent that the protective dunes should be built and any person or entity, including my homeowners association, causing delay is putting our community at risk,” Todd Christie said in a Feb. 2 statement released by the governor’s office. “If this was an individual decision and not one of the association, I would have signed an easement years ago.”
Chris Christie scored a national fan base for his leadership after Sandy. Last year, his Sandy approval dropped below 50 percent for the first time as he readied for an ill-fated presidential run while thousands of hurricane victims continued to be displaced.
Since Sandy, Christie has acquired more than 4,000 easements required for the dune project. Reconstruction and sand placement in Monmouth and Ocean counties, tasks totaling almost $100 million, are done. The $128 million fortification of Long Beach Island will be finished within about six months, according to the environmental department.
The governor in January called the easement holdouts “extraordinarily selfish.” He won a round in March, when a judge ruled against waterfront homeowners who had claimed that the environmental department had wrongfully condemned private property. The state is authorized “to protect the fragile coastal system,” the judge wrote.
Separately, though, the judge ruled that the case could continue for nine plaintiffs from Bay Head, whose train station on summer weekends teems with Manhattanites ready to unwind in 100-year-old mansions. The plaintiffs – who include Republican fundraiser Lawrence E. Bathgate II and Austin T. Fragomen, the immigration attorney and former Bay Head Yacht Club commodore – had argued they had adequate protection in a rock wall, plantings, dunes and fencing, maintained at homeowners’ expense since the late 19th century.
“They paid for their own protection, and now the federal government is going to come in and wants to take ownership and control of our beaches,” said Thacher Brown, 68, a Pennsylvania resident whose family has summered in Bay Head since 1928. Like others beach-side, he said, they pay about $5,000 annually for the improvements.
“No longer would we be allowed to maintain our own dunes and plant dune grass and snow fence and do what’s necessary,” Brown, a retired investment manager, said by telephone. “That exposes our homes to risk.”
The Army Corps is demanding easements on 71 properties in town before it starts work, according to Bob Considine, a spokesman for the state environmental department. In neighboring Mantoloking, where the ocean cut a channel to Barnegat Bay and all 521 homes were damaged, permission is outstanding on nine lots.
Storms there in October and January exposed a steel wall, designed to be covered in 19 feet of sand.
“We could have already had the Corps project completed and doing its job,” Mantoloking Councilman Christopher Nelson wrote in a Feb. 16 letter to holdouts, urging them to relent. The state, he said, has “assembled a top-notch legal team, have precedent on their side and have the political will and capital to make sure that the necessary easements will be acquired.”
Last year, 11 named storms formed in the Atlantic Ocean, four more than predicted by Colorado State University. MDA Weather Services, a commercial meteorologist, expects 16 named storms, and AccuWeather Inc. predicts 14.
“What I want to prevent is massive flooding like we saw after Sandy,” Christie said in January after a storm left some shore town streets underwater. “I mean, do people forget what it looked like in Mantoloking?”
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