After Superstorm Sandy whacked New Jersey, most shore towns had to build or rebuild protective sand dunes. But three areas got a pass.
That could change soon. The federal government has agreed to reconsider whether dunes need to be built in places where they don’t exist now.
Nearly seven years after Sandy, Manasquan and Belmar do not have dunes protecting their coast. And a privately owned part of Point Pleasant Beach, owned by Jenkinson’s Boardwalk, negotiated a deal with state and federal officials to build a steel retaining wall just under the sand in return for not having to build a dune.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers told The Associated Press this month it will begin a study in October, carrying out a request the state Department of Environmental Protection made in 2015.
“We’ll be looking at the entire project from Sea Bright to Manasquan to see where dunes are needed for additional coastal storm risk reduction,” said Hector Mosley, a spokesman for the Army Corps’ New York office.
The three beaches are notable exceptions to the dune rule that former Republican Gov. Chris Christie imposed after Sandy. He insisted that dunes be repaired in places where they were damaged or built from scratch in places that didn’t have them before the storm.
Where people balked, because their oceanfront views would be lost or their property be seized for what they considered inadequate compensation, the state either sued or was sued in dozens of court cases involving the dunes.
Not so in Manasquan and Belmar. They, too, did not want dunes, but unlike the rest of the state, were not required by the state to build them.
“They felt there were some beaches that were wide enough that they didn’t need dunes,” said Matt Doherty, who was Belmar’s mayor at the time and now leads the state Casino Reinvestment Development Authority. “We fit into that category.”
Doherty said that despite Sandy’s damage to Belmar, where the boardwalk was destroyed and flooding extended more than five blocks inland, he did not favor building dunes afterward.
“It would have altered the look of the beachfront in Belmar,” he said.
Less than 3 miles to the south, Manasquan also was given a pass on dunes after Sandy, though it, too, suffered major damage from the storm.
“It was because of the cost,” said Mayor Edward Donovan.
Manasquan had dunes that were wrecked in Sandy, with much of the sand winding up inside beachfront homes.
The dune project that was considered after the storm would have covered 65 feet of a 110-foot-wide beach, leaving much less space for recreation, the mayor said. And the borough would have had to pay for wooden stairs to cross the dunes at 17 points, at a cost of $3.4 million to $4.25 million. In July 2015, it voted against rebuilding its dunes.
Although the decision to exempt Manasquan and Belmar, and part of Point Pleasant Beach, was made under her Republican predecessor, the current environmental commissioner, Catherine McCabe, favors an unbroken dune system along the shoreline.
“I think it’s necessary to have a steady line of protection down the length of the coast,” she said.
Elsewhere along the shore, dune opponents sued the state, including some oceanfront homeowners in Bay Head who insisted the $5 million they spent out of their own pockets on a rock wall offered better protection than the dune project. Like most of the other challenges, theirs lost.
“The whole process seems terribly unfair to me,” said Thacher Brown, one of the Bay Head homeowners. He bemoans the fact that Bay head was forced to build dunes while others were not.
Environmental department spokesman Larry Hajna said Manasquan and Belmar’s beach work was authorized by Congress in the 1990s “as beach fill projects, not as storm-risk reduction projects” and therefore was not required to be included in the post-Sandy work.
Manasquan, in particular, has not wanted dunes, even before Sandy hit. Beachfront homeowners share a widely held belief that the damage was worse because of the dunes, not despite them.
“The damage we got was from the sand,” said John Kelly, who built his oceanfront home 20 years ago. “We had sand on the ceiling.”
Belmar, and to a lesser extent Manasquan, use what has come to be called “portable dunes” to protect the coast each winter. It involves bulldozing up walls of sand in the fall, then smoothing them back out onto the beach in the spring.
“It’s only modestly effective,” said Stewart Farrell, director of Stockton University’s Coastal Research Center and one of the state’s leading experts on beaches. “They’re just shoving it up into a big pile and saying, ‘Thank you.'”