Oceanfront homeowners in this wealthy New Jersey shore enclave have so little faith in the government’s ability to protect them from catastrophic storms that they’ve spent $5 million of their own money on boulders placed between their homes and the ocean.
Members of the group, which includes a national Republican fundraising powerhouse, wants a judge to exempt them from a plan by Republican Governor Chris Christie to erect protective sand dunes along New Jersey’s entire 127-mile coastline. Their homes lie in an area that was devastated by Superstorm Sandy in 2012.
But they claim that parts of the town that had a rock wall underneath the sand fared better than those that didn’t. And they are deeply skeptical of the ability and willingness of the federal and state governments to pay to maintain the dunes for the next 50 years.
On February 6, they will go before the same Superior Court Judge who has already ruled in favor of Christie’s administration. Judge Marlene Lynch Ford ruled last year that the state Department of Environmental Protection has the legal right to use eminent domain proceedings to seize strips of land from oceanfront homeowners who don’t voluntarily sign easements allowing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to carry out the work on their land.
The homeowners want her to allow them to opt out of the project, asserting that what they have done privately offers as much protection, if not more, than what the government proposes.
“We already have sand twice as big as what they say we need, with rocks underneath it,” said Thacher Brown, a leader of the group. He estimated about 18 homeowners paid for the bulk of the rock wall, but noted that more than 100 residents contributed to it, including those who don’t live on the ocean.
“I’m a firm believer that no rational, intelligent person can look at the two options — a big pile of rocks and a big pile of sand — and not see that ours is better,” said resident Bob Hein.
The dunes would be built in addition to the rock wall, which would remain in place. That would require giving up an additional slice of privately owned beach.
In other places along the shore, property owners also oppose the dunes because they will block oceanfront views. But Bay Head residents downplay such concerns; Brown said he already cannot see the ocean from his first floor because of sand atop his own rock wall.
While the rock wall protected some Bay Head homes during Sandy, others that sat behind it still sustained catastrophic damage. The residents say damage to those homes would have been even worse without the rock underpinning to sand dunes during the storm.
“Our engineer says our system is better than what the DEP and the Army Corps propose, and we intend to prove that,” said Anthony DellaPelle, an attorney for the homeowners. The litigation involves about 50 homeowners in Bay Head, as well as neighboring Point Pleasant Beach and Mantoloking.
DEP spokesman Bob Considine said the best storm protection involves sand dunes with a replenished beach.
“Even after a moderate nor’easter, there is no beach in Bay Head,” he said. “There’s just ocean beating up against a rock wall. What makes for better protection is an engineered beach and dune system in front of it.”
Lawrence Bathgate II was the national Republican finance chairman under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, and raised money for both of George W. Bush’s presidential campaigns and Jeb Bush’s 2016 primary campaign.
“We’re not asking the government to do anything,” he said. “We paid for this out of our own pockets.”
Bathgate said he and his neighbors each pay between $1,000 and $1,500 two to three times a year to hire bulldozers to push sand back up onto the rock barrier. It is an expense they say they will gladly fund rather than relying on Congress to allocate money for beach replenishment or storm repairs for the 50-year life of the project; it will need touch-ups as frequently as every four years. They also worry they won’t be permitted to maintain the dunes behind their individual homes.
“It’s going to wash away, and the money isn’t going to be there to replace it,” Bathgate said.
Hein articulated the feeling of many here that the project would be a waste of public money where it’s not needed.
“We don’t need any help,” he said. “It’s a wonderful town; don’t screw it up. This is a horribly stupid idea.”