MARGATE, N.J. — For years, the New Jersey shore town of Margate has vigorously fought a plan to build protective sand dunes on its shores, even after Superstorm Sandy inundated the town.
In addition to losing ocean views, residents and officials of the town south of Atlantic City complained about a more consequential fear: Water building up between the dunes and the wooden bulkheads that separate oceanfront homes from the beach, forming huge, stagnant ponds that residents must slog through or around to reach the beach.
And that’s precisely what has happened.
After weekend storms dumped a half-foot of rain on the town, three pools of water formed behind the dunes, some of them 2 feet deep or more. Days after state and federal engineers promised the water would have drained away, the water is still there, forcing grumbling residents to make blockslong detours.
And it has only fanned the flames of resentment among many residents who remain convinced that Margate is being punished for suing the state and federal governments to try to block the dunes project by having the work take place during the height of summer, despite numerous denials from officials.
“We went from beachfront property to lakefront property,” said Lauren Sherman, whose family has owned a home in Margate since 1952 that’s a gathering spot for relatives from all around the country each summer. “I think it’s abhorrent that they did this in the middle of the summer. We pay a lot of money to be here and a lot of taxes to use this beach. I saw people slog through it up to their knees, and mothers carry their kids through these lakes. This is not OK.”
Margate’s beach was prone to ponding even before the dunes. But in years gone by, the town simply dug trenches on the sand to let standing water flow back to the sea. Now, that’s not possible with dunes in the way.
Town officials and individual homeowners fought the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in federal court trying to block the dunes. They argued that the sand piles weren’t needed and that much of the damage from Sandy in 2012 came from the bay side of town, not the ocean.
But they also raised the specter of huge beachfront lakes containing a witches’ brew of contaminants that might even spread the Zika virus by proving a breeding ground for mosquitoes.
The town lost its court battle, as a judge ruled that many of its fears appeared to be baseless. She also cited a promise by New Jersey’s environmental protection commissioner to fix any issues that arose from the dune project.
Margate Mayor Michael Becker is not usually the type to say, “I told you so,” but …
“I told you so,” he said. “We all told you so. For five years, we told you this was going to happen. And nobody listened to us.”
By midday Tuesday, water in ponds that were at least the size of football fields was still more than a foot deep.
Preliminary tests for bacteria in the ponds showed worrisome levels, Becker said. While more detailed results are expected in mid-afternoon, early results show “one of the areas is very contaminated and the other two are not real good, either.”
“They said the water would percolate away and it would be gone in a couple hours,” said resident Michael Murphy, as he sat in a sand chair atop a bulldozed pile of sand between the ponds on Monday. “Guess what? It didn’t. They ignored us.”
“This project might be a good thing in the long run if it protects the town from bad storms,” added resident Ami Farber. “But I don’t think people in this town expected these huge pipes and all the water pooling.”
Steven Rochette, a spokesman for the Army Corps, said the agency is rounding up pumps to shoot the water over the dunes and out to the sea in what all sides agree is a temporary solution. He also said other measures will include moving some sand around to form temporary walkways across the ponds, and filling parts of them in.
He also said a longer-term solution might include installing a pipe to carry storm water from the beach to the ocean.
But Becker isn’t impressed. He’s convening a special meeting of the Borough Council on Wednesday to consider reviving its legal battle against the project. The latest move would be to seek a federal court order shutting down the partially built dune project until engineering solutions can guarantee there won’t be standing water on the beach.
Many residents say they believe Margate was targeted by state and federal officials to suffer the brunt of the project during the prime summer season due to their unsuccessful court fight against it. But Department of Environmental Protection spokesman Larry Hajna said the schedule was based upon when sand pumping dredges and contractors were available.
“It had absolutely nothing to do with getting back at anybody,” he said.
Follow Wayne Parry at http://twitter.com/WayneParryAC