On a day that Gov. Chris Christie had harsh words for property owners’ opposition to dune projects, locals previously both for and against dunes said Monday that Sandy was the ultimate proof that dunes work.
“I’m committed to shorefront protection,” said Longport Mayor Nick Russo. “This is absolutely necessary. And Sandy proved that.”
Christie called opposition to dunes “extremely selfish and short-sighted” during a speech Monday at Bradley Beach, Monmouth County.
The governor said he is looking at ways to place requirements, legally, to make sure dune systems are built.
“What I care most about is that an aggressive dune system is built and maintained,” Christie said. “There shouldn’t be any debate about it. I hope that a group of homeowners doesn’t place the lives of an entire town at risk because they want a little bit better of a view.”
Absecon Island turned out to be a fine laboratory for dune protection — with Atlantic City and Ventnor seeing little beach-block damage and sand in areas with dunes, while large sections of Margate and Longport without dune protection were not as lucky.
The reason for the island’s split personality was a conflict over accepting an Army Corps of Engineers’ offer of as much as $12 million in federal funds in 2002 for dune construction. While Atlantic City accepted, residents and property owners in the Downbeach towns were split.
A group, Do not Upset our Natural Environment, or DUNE, arose to oppose the dunes and sought to get a referendum on the ballot — but under strict circumstances.
“They told us that they wanted to put it on the ballot, but only if the city fathers said yes to the dune project,” said then-Ventnor Mayor Tim Kreischer. “If we said no, the residents would not have gotten to vote on it. We said that wasn’t fair, and we would have a referendum no matter what we say.”
Kreischer and his fellow commissioners accepted the Army Corps’ offer, which led to a referendum over Ventnor putting up $1.2 million of the cost.
‘We wanted to protect the shorefront and protect the boardwalk,” Kreischer said. “If we turned down 7 (million) to 8 million dollars from the federal government and a storm took the boardwalk out, it would cost $25 million to replace it. We would not have been in a good position to ask for $25 million to replace what they were going to give us $8 million to protect.”
The decision led to a “knock-down, drag-out fight” in advance of the vote, said pro-dunes volunteer Julie Mealo.
Kreischer said they had to deal with “misinformation” from anti-dune advocates, who were “heavily funded, with color brochures. ... We were more grassroots.”
“They said there would be a 14-foot wall of sand,” he recalled. “We said that’s not true. ... We were already at 9 feet (in elevation), so it wasn’t 14 additional, feet it was five additional feet, two feet above the (height) of the boardwalk.”
There was also concern that the project would never come in at budget, but in the end Kreischer said Ventnor’s share came in at $700,000, much less than the $1.2 million number on the ballot.
In the end, the dune project was approved by a 2-1 margin, 2,041 votes for the project and 1,055 against. Meanwhile, Margate and Longport decided against accepting the funds.
The 2004 Press of Atlantic City headline following the completed dune work turned out to be eerily prescient: “A Sandy Surprise: Atlantic City, Ventnor beaches likely to shock seasonal residents.”
The results, Mealo said, were obvious after Sandy.
“You could just drive up and down Atlantic Avenue,” Mealo said. “In Margate and Longport, the sand was all over in the first floors of houses. We fared much better on the beach side (in Ventnor).”
One longtime opponent of the dunes was Sonny Ireland of Atlantic City, who backed campaigns to lower the dunes for better views.
Now, he said, “We made a mistake.”
After the storm, Ireland said, I live on the beach block and you could see they were absolutely effective. I changed my mind completely. You could see where the dunes held. Wherever you didn’t have dunes, you had sand in the street. ... You could see the beach just washed up when high tide was up.”
The area north of Revel, where the dunes stopped, was “devastated,” Ireland added.
The importance of dunes, he said, “is a no-brainer. ... If we had been successful in getting them pulled down?”
For his part, Kreischer said that many former opponents have also told him their minds have been changed.
“Many people living on the beachfront fought us on this,” Kreischer said. “Now, they’re very grateful we did it. A few people have stopped me on the boardwalk to say, ‘I wasn’t in favor of the dunes, but now I feel it was the right decision.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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