Making good on a long-delayed threat that was reiterated last week by Gov. Chris Christie, New Jersey went to court Thursday to seize 87 publicly owned beach parcels to be used for a protective dune system that a South Jersey shore town and its residents bitterly oppose.
The state attorney general's office and the Department of Environmental Protection acted less than a week after Christie called Margate "among the most selfish people in the state of New Jersey" for refusing to allow the dunes to be built.
The town, just south of Atlantic City, says its wooden bulkheads are sufficient to protect against ocean flooding, and that most of the damage from Superstorm Sandy in 2012 came from the bay on the other side of town.
In order for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' dune project to begin, 10 private lots still need to be acquired in Margate, which are not part of Thursday's court action.
"As evidenced in the damage from last week's nor'easter and from Superstorm Sandy, all of our beaches along the Jersey Shore require maximum protection from storm surges," DEP Commissioner Bob Martin said. "The refusal of remaining holdouts along the New Jersey coastline to provide easements has forced us to seek condemnation of portions of their properties so we don't further delay these critical Army Corps projects that will protect lives and property."
Martin said Margate's refusal to allow the dune project endangers not only its own residents, but those to the north and south as well.
"We are very disappointed that the elected officials in Margate are forcing the state to protect their own citizens through the courts, as well as the citizens of Longport and Ventnor," he said. "We will continue to be very aggressive in using eminent domain as a tool to obtain the easements we need from those who continue to delay our efforts to safeguard our coast."
Margate Business Administrator Richard Deaney said the state offered only $29,000 for the land, which was rejected.
"We've always been ready to negotiate with them, not just about the money, which is all they seem to want to talk about, but about what we consider to be an arbitrary, one-size-fits-all project," he said. "We want to negotiate this and not just fight in court."
Shortly after Sandy devastated the coast three years ago, Christie vowed to build dunes along the state's entire 127-mile coastline. But property owners in several towns fought back, with some saying they did not want to lose ocean views, while others object to giving up a portion of their private property for a public purpose.
Some oceanfront property owners in Bay Head, where the greatest number of holdouts remain (123), have paid to place huge boulders under the sand at their own expense. Private beach clubs in Toms River and Point Pleasant Beach are also holding out, with the popular Jenkinson's Boardwalk suing in federal court to block the work, as Margate did as well.
The state has secured more than 90 percent of the 4,279 easements needed for the project. But 366 easements, held by 239 property owners, remain to be acquired.
"We appreciate that many property owners — mindful of the ravages of Superstorm Sandy — have unselfishly donated easements for the greater good, but some continue to hold out," said Acting Attorney General John J. Hoffman. "Our message is that we remain committed to acquiring all of the easements we need as expeditiously as possible."