Doin’ the Dunes – Part XI

Posted on September 7, 2017 by Joseph Manko

As a response to the wreckage of property caused by Superstorm Sandy on Absecon Island, New Jersey, the municipalities that comprise the coastline – Brigantine, Atlantic City, Ventnor City and Longport – supported the construction of dunes on their beaches . . . with one exception.  The outlier, Margate City, chose to oppose the construction of dunes on its beaches and beginning in 2014, Margate went to court to prevent the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and US Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) from building dunes in Margate. 

Thus ensued various challenges from Margate homeowners and ultimately the Margate City Council, leading to a rash of decisions in state and federal courts as described in my prior 10 blogs.  Earlier this year, both courts upheld the authority of the DEP and the Corps to proceed, and construction began in July – starting in the middle “municipality”:  Margate’s beaches.  (Not surprisingly, Margate described this disruption in the heart of tourist time as “payback” for its opposition.  Also not surprisingly, the DEP and Corps disputed Margate’s characterization.) 

Dune construction on Margate’s beaches has not proceeded without incident.  Since Margate is located at – or just a tad above – sea level, heavy rainfalls or tidal crests have historically caused Margate’s streets to flood, and the stormwater  and its various constituents to spill out directly to, or in outfall pipes through, the beaches and into the ocean.  Without the dunes, residents had grown accustomed to occasional resultant ponding as the stormwater percolated across and through the sand.  However, as the dunes rose, the traditional rate of percolation stopped, causing the formation of standing stormwater “lakes,” which the city has dubbed “Lake Christie.”  The standing stormwater impedes the access to the beaches and allegedly creates dermatological problems for lifeguards and people walking through.

Although Margate abandoned further litigation regarding the authority of DEP and the Corps to build dunes, Margate was drawn back to court by the outcry regarding the dunes’ failure to allow normal percolation.  Margate met with initial success:  the state court issued a temporary restraining order (TRO) on further construction until the contractor for the Corps could demonstrate a process to address the standing water.  The Corps – which was not a party to the state proceedings – then successfully moved to have the case removed to the federal district court, where the TRO was dissolved by Judge Renee Marie Bumb, the same judge who had previously ruled that the DEP and Corps had the authority to build the dune.  In her ruling, Judge Bumb held that the state court had no jurisdiction to issue a TRO against a federal agency (the Corps) and again stressed the Sandy aftermath concern for allowing resumption of the construction, subject to a series of conditions, including eliminating the current pooling and determining the manner in which recurrences of flooding would be avoided. 

As I complete this latest blog, Margate’s appeal of Judge Bumb’s decision to the Third Circuit was denied.  And I, an owner of a beachfront condo and a long time summer tourist in Margate, continue to try to remain otherwise “uninvolved” other than as a writer of blogs.  Did I know where this was headed when I wrote my first blog?  Absolutely not.  Did I know that my very persona as an environmental attorney would make me be unwillingly controversial?  Absolutely not, but it’s been interesting to observe, rather than serve as an environmental litigator so close to my “second home.”