Posted on October 23, 2023
Calling it a blame game might be an understatement.
North Wildwood and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection continue to trade barbs over why repairs on the town’s ever-eroding coast have largely been neglected and how already-completed work has impacted beach conditions.
But a resolution may soon be in the cards.
North Wildwood, which has not received ample sand replenishment for about a decade due to extensive delays for a federal U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project, has seen its shoreline steadily diminish.
About 14 blocks worth of beach on the 2 1/4 mile stretch are gone following Hurricane Ian last fall and the recent remnants of Tropical Storm Ophelia, according to North Wildwood Mayor Patrick Rosenello.
In the midst of temporary fixtures to the shore — sometimes in the form of impromptu steel bulkheads built by the town using taxpayer money — the NJDEP and North Wildwood have also been on course to resolve the matter in court. State citations for some of the beach work date back to 2020.
Both the state and Jersey Shore town have discussed settling the $33 million legal fight — which harkens back to the start of the year — since at least early September, according to an attorney letter provided by locals officials.
Although a $12.8 million notice of violation issued to North Wildwood at the start of the year is being handled independent of a $21 million lawsuit in which the town seeks to recoup money its lost re-nourishing the beach on its own dime, the mayor said it was also part of settlement discussions.
Anthony Bocchi, an attorney with New York-based law firm Cullen and Dykman which is representing North Wildwood in the dispute, said state department officials have until Wednesday to send a written settlement offer ahead of a meeting Oct. 27.
“We have been discussing potential settlement for well over a month, at least since Sept. 7, after you first raised the issue of reaching a global settlement as to all disputes between the parties,” Bocchi wrote in the letter dated Oct. 13 and sent to the state. ”There are only so many times one can go to the well of ‘this takes time and is complex’ before all patience is lost. This is where we are in the case, because the situation is too dire to handle this matter in the normal regular course.”
NJDEP officials could not immediately be reached for comment Wednesday.
Coastal cities nationwide have been forced to face worsening beach erosion from climate change and rising sea levels. The financial implications of having to spruce up defenses on the shore can rack up in the millions and federal project timelines — like North Wildwood has experienced — are subject to weather.
Rosenello claimed Wednesday morning that while discussing settling the lawsuit, the NJDEP has sought to first address the town’s past compliance issues.
“That’s bad faith negotiations. That’s not a global settlement. That is the state trying to, I presume, extract some type of fine or concession out of the city of North Wildwood first,” said Rosenello.
Rosenello, a Republican, has been at odds with Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, and his administration in the past.
While the mayor could not discuss the negotiations in detail, he said North Wildwood does not intend to pay a $12.8 million fine the state previously issued for beach replenishment that allegedly took place without state approval.
While wide sections of the remaining beach have seen issues like parts with sharp drops, Rosenello has pointed to between 12th and 16th Avenues, as well as near 3rd Avenue as problem areas.
In a Oct. 12 letter, NJDEP Commissioner Shawn LaTourette dinged North Wildwood — claiming the town has lagged on completing a longer-term permit that would have meant wider-spanning beach fixes by now.
Also, while the town built up an authorized $400,000 sea wall around its beach patrol offices, it has not followed instructions to pour sand on parts of the beach, the commissioner said.
“Indeed, had the city completed the sand mitigation by Sept. 30 as originally required, the dune at 15th Avenue may have been less susceptible to breach during recent October storms,” LaTourette said.
Rosenello said the sand replenishment near 15th Avenue suggested by the state would offer little protection at a high cost.
“In yesterday’s letter, Commissioner LaTourette brazenly characterized the city’s purported ‘inaction’ in providing itself shore protection,” Bocchi wrote Friday. “Interestingly, Commissioner LaTourette concedes that the city is the ‘last of New Jersey’s barrier islands to receive the protection afforded by an engineered beach and dune system,’ but, of course, ‘solely’ attributes the ‘delay’ to the ‘refusal of neighboring Five Mile Island municipalities to accept the project… ..’ Certainly, the city sees this differently.”
Back passing sand, trucking it in from the nearby and wider Wildwood city beach, is still possible, according to the state. But the city, which previously noted that an eroded beach has made sections for the massive vehicles necessary to travel impassable, has not been presented with an affordable plan to turn to that alternative, local officials said.
LaTourette also notes in his correspondence that absent steps taken by the city to replenish the beach with sand, the city “faces conditions where, by design or default, incremental bulk heading of the shoreline appears its only option.”
An attorney for North Wildwood said such a “suggestion (was) highly offensive and demonstrates DEP’s insensitivity to the city’s plight.”
So far, Rosenello said Wednesday, the NJDEP — which was given until close of business Oct. 18 — has not provided a written settlement offer in the lawsuit.
If it does not receive an offer, an attorney said, the town will immediately request a case management conference with a judge.