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Erosion woes sets stage for fight between North Wildwood and DEP

Posted on October 20, 2022

Compared to the west coast of Florida, Jersey shore communities had it easy when what was left of Hurricane Ian passed by, bringing flooded roads and derailing weekend plans.

Fort Myers Beach, Sanibel, Captiva and other Florida communities face a long, difficult recovery from the late September storm, one of the strongest hurricanes to ever make landfall in the Sunshine State.

In the Garden State, the biggest hit was erosion, ranging from lost beach to deep cuts in the dune systems of multiple communities. In Avalon and Stone Harbor, some beach paths now end in 10- to 15-foot drop to the beach.

In North Wildwood, the situation seems particularly dire, with a significant section of dune swept away at 15th Avenue.

“It’s really bad. The dune is about 75% gone,” said North Wildwood Mayor Pat Rosenello.

There is a sheer, 10-foot cliff on one side, what beach engineers refer to as a scarp. The city has asked for emergency authorization to flatten that out and to place concrete barriers, often described as “Jersey barriers,” along the road.

North Wildwood also wants emergency authorization to construct a steel bulkhead in that area.

For years, the city has seen intense erosion in its north end, where North Wildwood trucks in new sand from Wildwood and Wildwood Crest each year only to see it wash away by the next storm.

But in that area, there are already rocks and a bulkhead protecting the road and the town.

“At 15th, there’s nothing behind the dune except the city,” Rosenello said.

One winter nor’easter, Rosenello said, and that dune will likely be washed away.

He added that the city is not going to wait for the OK from the state Department of Environmental Protection, potentially setting up a fight between the city and the state.

“We’re moving forward with the project. We have no choice,” Rosenello said last week. “I’m not sure what the status is of the emergency authorization, but we’re moving forward with or without it.”

DEP spokesperson Caryn Shinske said North Wildwood has approval to place the Jersey barriers behind the dunes.

Emergency authorization

Almost anything a municipality does on the beach or with dunes requires approval from the DEP. The department has told Rosenello not to proceed without approval.

In an Oct. 7 letter Shinske released in response to a request for comment, Dennis Reinknecht, the director of resilience engineering and construction, and Jennifer Moriarity, the director of the DEP division of land resource protection, told Rosenello that authorization would be needed before work began, “and the city is not authorized to proceed with any such projects at this time.”

On Friday, Shinske said the DEP issued an emergency authorization for the Jersey barriers in North Wildwood, describing them as temporary. But it denied emergency authorization for a bulkhead or to reshape the dunes. It also said no to a request to clear a vehicle access route to the beach at 25th Avenue, saying that access way was never approved to begin with and that there are other vehicle access routes nearby.

As for the bulkhead, the DEP said North Wildwood already had applied for a permit in 2020 to install one there, and the state found the application “administratively deficient.” The must include a review of other options. Proceeding with any work without an emergency authorization could mean civil penalties or other enforcement. Also, the remaining dune will still provide shore protection, the DEP statement says.

According to the DEP response, emergency authorization cannot be approved because “it has not been demonstrated that there is an imminent threat to the loss of life or property based on existing conditions.”

Rosenello seems determined to proceed. Asked if he planned to have the city still install a bulkhead after the DEP statement, he said, “Yes. Unless by some miracle that dune regenerates itself and there are no more storms this winter!”

The Oct. 7 letter suggests a bulkhead would increase erosion in adjacent areas, and adds that the DEP is working with the Army Corps of Engineers and the city to bring $30 million in shore protection to North Wildwood. The letter also cites a 2020 citation against the city for what it describe as the destruction of 12 acres of mature, vegetated dunes and the construction of more than 2,000 feet of bulkhead without a permit.

At that time, Rosenello suggested the state’s accusations were payback for comments he made critical of the state government. He had more criticism to add last week.

“We’d like the NJDEP to do their job and build a shore protection project like they’ve been telling us for nine years,” he said.

‘They need to pivot’

Rosenello has been calling for a beach replenishment project for his city for years. The process of pumping sand from shoals onto beaches has become routine in most New Jersey beach towns, but not in North Wildwood. Rosenello blames a state effort to create a system of dunes the length of Five Mile Beach, to also include Wildwood and Wildwood Crest, for the delay in building North Wildwood’s beaches.

This year, he said, the city may not be able to truck sand in to shore up the beaches, either.

“Part of our problem is the route to get the sand out of Wildwood no longer exists,” he said, with the beaches eroding enough that the trucks cannot make the trip.

“It’s obvious that what they attempted to do has failed,” Rosenello said. “They need to pivot and do something different to get this shore protection in place.”

Ocean City is expected to get more sand added to its north end this year, with an additional project adding sand to the south end of the city, along with Sea Isle City and the Strathmere section of Upper Township expected next year.

In Avalon and Stone Harbor, a beach project is due in 2023. Last week, Avalon announced an additional $8.5 million for the Seven Mile Beach replenishment, bringing the total federal commitment to $27 million.

The plan is to open bids for a project contract in November, with work expected to be completed before the tourists arrive next year.

Scott Wahl, Avalon’s administrator, said his town saw serious erosion from Ian between 12th Street and 20th Street.

“We have eight blocks closed. The rest of the beach is in pretty good shape,” Wahl said.

Several dune crossings in Avalon have been closed to the public, while Stone Harbor has gone so far as to close its entire beachfront to the public. Manny Parada, Stone Harbor’s director of public works, said some dune crossings are too dangerous to use.

Others, like the crossing at 96th Street, one of the busiest areas of the town, seems fine but is still blocked by warning signs and orange plastic netting. On a sunny weekday afternoon, several beachgoers ignored the warning to set up beach chairs or stroll in the October sunshine.

“We still have access issues for emergency personnel,” Parada said.

The beaches that could be reached safely were closed to the public because if there were an emergency, the routes that allow rescue vehicles to get to the beaches are inaccessible. If someone has a medical emergency or gets too close to one of the steep cliffs in the dunes and gets buried in sand, it would be difficult to get vehicles to the scene. The scarps in the dunes are inherently unstable.

In Avalon, which shares a barrier island with Stone Harbor, some dune crossings are blocked, and a long-buried bulkhead and protective rocks have been exposed. But in those communities, there remains a wide section of dunes between the erosion and the houses.

“Dunes are meant to protection the community and sacrifice some sand in a storm,” Wahl said. “We’re in pretty good shape there.”

Steep cuts in the dunes in the north end of the Strathmere were further eroded in the storm, while erosion was reported in beaches throughout southern New Jersey. And as Rosenello and others pointed out, the nor’easter season has barely begun.

Short of building a new bulkhead, Rosenello said, the options for North Wildwood are limited.

“We don’t have access to sand, so I don’t know what our alternatives are,” he said.


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