Posted on August 21, 2023
From atop the local lifeguard headquarters, Mayor Patrick Rosenello looks out over the shrinking shoreline of his hometown.
To the north, past the kaleidoscope of umbrellas that dot the beach, he can see the massive bulkheads the city has installed to hold back the encroaching sea — the same ones at the heart of an ongoing fight with the state, which has sued North Wildwood and fined it more than $8.5 million for that and other work it says was unauthorized, misguided and destructive.
Rosenello can also glimpse the signs he posted along beach entrances this summer, bearing photos of New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D) and the state’s top environmental officer, calling them “directly responsible” for failing to fix the erosion problems here.
“I try not to pour fuel on the fire,” says the man who has poured a considerable amount of fuel on this fire in recent months.
But he isn’t apologizing.
The way the mayor sees it, this scenic town of 5,000 — a number that swells to nearly 10 times that each summer — has little choice but to take matters into its own hands. Murphy speaks often about climate change and resilience, Rosenello says, but for years North Wildwood has grappled with erosion, rising seas and fierce storms largely alone while other coastal communities have seen their beaches restored.
“It’s easy to sit in Trenton and talk about these things,” he says, referring to New Jersey’s capital. “But here’s a real-world resilience project that his administration can’t get done … We’ve spent an enormous amount of money, and they’ve done nothing.”
Shawn LaTourette, commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, calls Rosenello’s accusations disingenuous. The main reason a long-planned beach nourishment project has languished is not because of state inaction, he said in an interview, but rather because the communities along the five-mile-long island that is home to North Wildwood failed to universally embrace the project until this year.
“This is the part of the story that I think folks misunderstand,” said LaTourette, whose picture is featured on Rosenello’s signs. “We’ve been eager for the last decade to help here, but that help has been rebuffed.”
The peculiar, acrimonious fight playing out along the Jersey Shore is, in one sense, an outlier — a rare case in which state and municipal officials have launched legal battles and remained at loggerheads over how best to safeguard a threatened stretch of shoreline.
At the same time, the standoff between North Wildwood and New Jersey — a state experts say has been proactive on long-term planning and coastal adaptation — hints at the sort of conflicts likely to unfold more often in the age of climate change.
“It’s a bad thing to have every town for themselves,” said A.R. Siders, a University of Delaware professor who researches climate adaptation policies. At the same time, she said, localities are on the front lines of the problem and often can move more quickly than states or the federal government.
“There is a real tension here between these levels of government that we don’t have a great way of solving at the moment,” she said.
“I do think we are going to see a lot more of these kinds of fights.”
Decades ago, an expanse of beach nearly 1,500 feet wide unfurled along much of North Wildwood. “Sand accumulated, plants grew, and these island dunes were impressive,” according to a historical analysis from Stockton University’s Coastal Research Center.
That reality has changed dramatically.
North Wildwood’s location at the tip of a barrier island, along with the shifting sands of nearby Hereford Inlet, has led to relentless erosion. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers led construction of a sea wall at the northern end of town that was completed in 2006. And the state of New Jersey teamed with North Wildwood on a beach restoration project that commenced in 2009.
But over the past decade, storms have eaten away at the city’s defenses. Some had names — Sandy, Irene, Jonas, Ian. Others were nor’easters that swept in to devour dunes and shrink what beach remained.
On several occasions since 2013, North Wildwood installed vinyl and steel bulkheads along stretches of the beach where dunes had atrophied, and nearby roads, buildings and drainage systems were left mostly defenseless. Rosenello said the city notified state regulators of the work, but did not wait for explicit approval.
“There’s no doubt that the actions we took saved blocks of the town from being washed away,” he insisted.
North Wildwood also trucked in massive amounts of sand from neighboring towns each winter, believing that the federally backed renourishment project approved in the wake of Hurricane Sandy would soon become reality.
But after years of delay, the project isn’t scheduled to begin until 2025.
The clash between North Wildwood and state regulators escalated in December, when the DEP sued to prevent town leaders from installing several additional blocks of steel bulkheads.
In its 500-page complaint, the agency said the planned work was “illegal” and that there was no “imminent or ongoing threat” to lives or property. It also argued that it risked “permanent and irreparable harm” to vegetated dunes and wetlands that could provide habitat to endangered species, such as peregrine falcons.
Early this year, the town countersued, arguing that its efforts were “absolutely necessary,” and that the state had “stifled” its ability to protect against erosion and sea levels that are rising “at alarming rates.”
The town is seeking a $21 million reimbursement — an amount it claims it spent in recent years on largely unsuccessful efforts to fortify its beach. Meanwhile, state regulators have fined North Wildwood more than $8.5 million for its history of unauthorized actions along the beachfront.
In May, the chilly relationship appeared to thaw briefly when the DEP allowed the town to perform emergency repairs to several dunes ahead of the Memorial Day holiday. But in early June, when crews did additional work, regulators issued yet another notice of violation.
“They broke the law. … It’s not retaliatory. It’s just the way that it works,” LaTourette said. “No other community in the state has done this. Not to this degree.”
The mayor soon posted dozens of signs lambasting Murphy and LaTourette. And LaTourette sent a five-page letter, saying he was “perplexed” by the town’s actions, “which again break state law, violate a court order, and contradict our many productive personal discussions.”
He wrote that the agency had repeatedly advised city leaders that “illegal measures that you believe will combat erosion … may in fact make matters worse.” While many municipalities face similar problems, he wrote, North Wildwood’s “flagrant disregard for the law” stands apart.
In the interview, LaTourette said that when he took office in 2021, he was bewildered that the area was the last remaining stretch of coastline without an active resilience project — especially given that it was widely known as “an erosional hot spot.”
“I found it anathema,” LaTourette said, adding that he “set about to get the communities to the table and to sign on to this agreement, because you see what’s happening in North Wildwood.”
Eventually, he said, the state secured necessary agreements from all municipalities on the barrier island, allowing the project to go forward. The Army Corps said in a statement that the project to pump sand and bolster dunes along the island, estimated to cost $25 million to $30 million, “is expected to begin between 18 and 24 months from now.”
But LaTourette warned that if North Wildwood continues to flout state oversight, regulators “will have no choice but to pursue aggressive enforcement action,” including significant penalties.
Rosenello responded July 11, once again defending the town’s decisions, but adding that he remains eager for “positive outcomes and not seemingly never-ending legal battles.”
For now, at least, the legal battles continue.
North Wildwood is among the last communities to receive a beach nourishment in the decade since Hurricane Sandy ravaged the Jersey Shore, but such projects have been never-ending along one of the mostly densely populated coastlines in the country.
As of 2022, according to one presentation, roughly 90 percent of New Jersey’s developed coast was part of an Army Corps-backed resilience project.
According to data from the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines at Western Carolina University, more than $2.5 billion (adjusted for inflation) has been spent on hundreds of replenishment projects in New Jersey over the past century. That amounts to more than one-fifth of the total nationwide, despite the fact that New Jersey’s Atlantic coastline measures a mere 130 miles.
“It is the center of beach nourishment in the U.S. — not by miles, but by how long its been going on, the cost and how frequently we have to redo these projects,” said Rob Young, a coastal geology professor and director of the WCU program.
The state’s 2021 coastal resilience plan notes that New Jersey’s beaches and dunes protect billions of dollars of development, the bustling tourism industry and a plethora of natural resources. But the state acknowledges that sea level rise and more intense storms are expected to pose growing ecological and economic risks.
Kimberly McKenna, interim executive director of Stockton University’s Coastal Research Center, said given their critical role in the New Jersey economy, the long-term commitments to protect coastal communities makes sense.
But those promises are becoming more complicated and costly.
As sea levels rise and storms intensify, certain places require beach nourishments more often. Labor costs have risen. And as finite sources of sand dwindle, officials must hunt for new places to dredge safely.
Broader questions persist about whether New Jersey, like other threatened areas, should do more to limit coastal development or consider retreating from the most vulnerable spots. But as long as the federal government funds the bulk of beach protection, Young said, there are fewer incentives to reckon with those hard questions.
“In New Jersey, they’ve been very lucky. Federal taxpayers have been footing the bill for most of it,” he said.
LaTourette said the state eventually will have to confront those long-term challenges. “For how long can we do this?” he said. “That is a major policy question.”
While New Jersey has done planning for the future and aggressively pursued federal hazard mitigation dollars, the country as a whole is mostly unprepared for the risks coming to many places, said Siders.
“We are working really hard to keep everything exactly where and how it is today,” she said. “That is not how climate change works.”
In the short term, McKenna believes North Wildwood ultimately will get the beach nourishment it craves, despite the public spat.
“I think they will be able to get together and solve their differences,” she said. “Everybody in this case understands the urgency.”
For his part, LaTourette called the vilification of state officials unproductive and disappointing but said finishing the beach protection project in North Wildwood and neighboring communities remains a top priority.
“Our climate realities are staring us in the face, and it’s scary. All the more reason to push forward and get this project done,” he said. “It will get done, I am absolutely confident.”
At least within the boundaries of North Wildwood — part of a decidedly red county in a reliably blue state — Rosenello, 50, appears to enjoy broad support for the city’s clash with state officials.
Michael Galioto, who along with his wife owns the Northwind Motel, is grateful the town erected bulkheads in recent years, even if it did so without the blessing of the state. “We may be beachfront property if that weren’t the case,” he said.
Galioto worries that if the erosion persists, his customers might head to nearby towns such as Wildwood, which has an expansive beach, or Avalon, where a nourishment project was completed this spring.
Several blocks south, Robert Del Monte shares those concerns. His family has owned the Matador Oceanfront Resort for generations.
“This beach has really taken a beating,” Del Monte said as he stood on the resort’s rooftop patio. “We can’t wait. One bad storm and we could be in a lot of trouble.”
On a recent summer afternoon, the feud that hangs over North Wildwood seemed like an afterthought to the crowds that flocked to the beach and strolled the boardwalk. A large sign welcomed visitors with the slogan, “Sun and Sand” — even as the town is in desperate need of the latter.
Planes flew low over the shore, pulling banners that advertised $1 oysters and live music. An Italian ice stand bustled with business.
Cyclists and dog walkers meandered past the signs criticizing top state officials and urging residents to tell them “you want answers immediately!”
“My frustration is not personal,” said Rosenello, who took office in 2014. “It’s just that they are the people running these huge bureaucracies that cannot get this done.”
Slowly but unmistakably, the tide began to come in.
The waves inched ever closer to the barriers that rise eight feet tall in places, forcing the remaining sunbathers to fold their chairs, pack their umbrellas and head toward higher ground.