"You have a fight on your hands." As it happened, Jerry Donohoe was talking about the power of Mother Nature compared to the relative wisp of a barrier island he lives on. But his comment, at a public meeting in August, also applies to the vocal debate over the dune and beach-replenishment project up for approval by Margate voters in November.

As former Mayor Vaughan Reale said at a later meeting: "This will be the single most important vote you will make in Margate in the history of your life."

Or maybe not. The office of Gov. Chris Christie is adamantly insisting that a recent executive order - which states that no municipality can enforce any order that "will in any way interfere" with the state's massive dune program - completely nullifies the referendum.

Ever since, however, legal experts and state officials have failed to answer questions raised about whether the order, meant to streamline the easement process for private property, can really overturn a citywide vote and force a municipal government to sign a 40-year, multimillion-dollar contract.

"If we go with the referendum and the people say no, what does that mean?" asked Margate Mayor Mike Becker. "Does the state government have the power to overrule the people's will? Until those questions get answered, we're sort of in a gray area."

The New Yorker referred to it recently simply as The Project: the vast, years-long, $700 million plan to extend the life of the Jersey shore by adding sand to beaches and building wave-absorbing dunes. On Absecon Island, the project arrived 10 years ago with the construction of dunes in Atlantic City and Ventnor. Margate and Longport held out.

But then came Sandy.

Earlier this year, Longport signed on to a plan that would extend the beach replenishment and dune system to the tip of the island, and Atlantic City and Ventnor saw its beaches replenished. A similar project is planned for southern Ocean City.

The initial beachfill and dunes proposed for the "Absecon Island Coastal Storm Risk Reduction Project" - 5 to 7 feet above the beach, located 25 feet from the bulkhead, with another 200 feet of beach beyond - would be fully funded by the federal government, at no cost to Margate. The future costs of beach and dune maintenance would be split; currently, refurbishment breakdowns are funded 65 percent by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 26 percent by the state and about 9 percent by the city.

The federal government fully funding the initial build is a unique opportunity created by the Sandy Relief Bill passed earlier this year, Army Corps of Engineers spokesman Ed Voigt said.

Voigt said planning for the project will continue whether or not Margate signs on, adding that work in Longport should begin next spring. He did not want to estimate the cost of the total project before contracts were awarded.

As Dave Rosenblatt, of the state DEP, told residents at the August meeting, responding to those asking about bay protection or bulkheads, "We have funding to deal with this one part. Should we not take the solution we have funding for, while the money's available? The money's not going to stick around forever."

On the Margate City Commission, Brenda Taube is in favor, Maury Blumberg has serious questions, while Becker has so far stayed neutral. The public meeting with the DEP and Army Corps was standing-room-only - and now, the opposition has organized.

'Beautiful beaches'

Reale is part of a group called "Margate Citizens Questioning the Beach Project." While not taking an overt stand in opposition, its flier - which stressed that "it is important you are not scared into making a rushed decision that will forever change Margate's beautiful beaches" - certainly gave a hint.

Reale, who also said the group will hire an independent coastal engineer, said in an email that the biggest concerns he and others had heard were the familiar ones: the beachwork wouldn't protect the bayfront, where the majority of flooding took place in Sandy; it's too expensive; and there were questions over the cost of future upkeep. And, Reale added, "It's ugly. You're ruining a beautiful beachfront with man-made dunes to protect man-made property. It's almost like cutting down a tree to protect it from lumberjacks."

Many in Margate felt the same way, including Steve Baglivo, whose home on the beachblock of Douglas Avenue was being rebuilt after Sandy.

"I don't think we need it, to tell the truth," Baglivo said. Describing the process of free dunes now with unspecified costs of refurbishment in the future, "It's like saying, 'I'd love to sell you my car; just take it. You don't know what you owe me, but when I come back you better have it.'"

The damage that occurred during Sandy "had nothing to do with the storm surge off the ocean," said vocal opponent Jack Roche, who said he hasn't talked to one person who is in favor - "though maybe they're not saying that while I'm there," he joked.

Nearby, Carol Armon, a 60-year resident, looked around at the beach, which had grown in most places from the small beach that remained after Sandy. The beach at Adams Avenue, where waves lapped against the bulkhead as recently as the days after a March northeaster, saw its rock jetty completely disappear beneath the sand.

"My thoughts are it would destroy this beautiful beach," Armon said. "It's not going to protect the island. Most of the people with damage had baywater or rainwater. ... If they want to give us money, this is an island, protect the island. Give us big bulkheads. Don't ruin the beautiful beach."

Richard Tomar agreed. "Look at this beach," he said. "We don't need it. That (sand) all came from Ventnor ..."

Others, however, were in favor of the dunes, including Michelle Lippincott - who just returned to her Jefferson Avenue home after 10 months.

"I just got back in," she said. "Anything to prevent water ... I think it's a step in the right direction."

Steve Woerner believed that people against the dunes "are denying there's going to be another storm. 'It's not going to happen again,' and then they stick their heads in the sand. ... We had a 20-year storm, and 40 miles up the coast they had a 100-year storm, We had better hope we're ready for it."

Summer resident Stan Silverman, in the reverse of what Roche said, recalled that every other summer resident he talked to was in favor of the dunes - adding that he was disappointed he won't get a vote.

Year-round resident John Sparta, meanwhile, said the largest opposition "seems to be the people living in the big houses on the beach. They're upset about their view of the ocean. They're not concerned about the people who live here."

Tomar, whose home has one of those vaunted views of the beach, said he was leaning against it, "but I don't think the view is a reasonable reason to oppose it. Even if I didn't have a view, it's plenty nice."

Margate, Tomar said, simply has a "libertarian streak" of skepticism. The fact that a vote is happening at all was part of the appeal to Baglivo.

"Every city should have a vote," Baglivo concluded. "That's why I live here."

Short memories

When it comes to dunes, Stewart Farrell, director of the Port Republic-based Coastal Research Center, has heard it all before.

"It's the same story coming out as it did then," Farrell said of dune opponents. "They didn't learn anything. ... To build (dunes) in Longport and Ventnor and leave Margate wide open is patently nuts."

Farrell countered the opponents' claims that there was little oceanside damage from Sandy, saying that as much as 3 feet of sand wound up pushed over the bulkheads as far as Atlantic Avenue.

"There was large debris deposited on the top of dunes all over," Farrell said. "That stuff didn't blow there (from the wind)."

But Farrell did acknowledge that the dunes are not a panacea for what had been known as "100-year storms," saying they are designed to help with the effects of a 25- to 50-year storm.

"They're not looking to stop the worst storm in history. They're looking at benefits-to-cost ratio," Farrell said. "If you spend a little money, you don't get much benefits. ... They designed the project to get the best outcome in economic damage prevention for the cost of the project."

He also cautioned against the idea that Sandy was the worst-case scenario, and Margate came through.

"(They) just skated through," Farrell said. "It's not equal to what you would have had had Sandy come up the Delaware Bay. People would still be wondering where their house was. Especially those on foundations and not pilings, and there are a lot of foundation houses. It would have been Mantoloking South, Ortley Beach South."

Who's the boss?

Despite the Governor's Office's pronouncements, spokesman Michael Drewniak could not specifically say if the state could force a contract on an unwilling city.

"I don't find that to be a serious question," Drewniak said in an email. "What municipal 'leaders' anywhere would reject the proven protections of engineered dune systems versus the potential for devastation of their tax base and way of life?"

The latest statements from the Governor's Office, meanwhile, do not faze the anti-dune group.

"We don't think it's appropriate to speculate on what impact the governor's executive order will have on the November referendum, because we simply do not know at this point," group spokesman Dan Gottlieb said.

"We do, however, respectfully disagree with the governor on this issue in terms of allowing taxpayers of local municipalities to determine whether or not dunes represent the best and most cost-effective solution to their own beach-protection plans," he said. "We believe that just as beaches differ greatly up and down the Jersey Shore, so too does the need for dunes differ."

What would Margate's total costs of future refurbishment be? Reale estimated that going by Ventnor's share of replenishment, which in early 2012 was about $525,000 for 325,000 cubic yards of sand along 1.8 miles, Margate would pay about a $630,000 share per replenishment.

Though the contract is for 40 years, Reale plotted out 50 years for an estimated municipal total of $14.9 million if there were replenishments every three years. The Corps assumes replenishment every three to five years.

Farrell, meanwhile, was more circumspect.

"Get used to it," he said. "Either that or move out. You're going to have to pay eventually. And if the sea level rises 2 feet in the next 50 years? Then there's going to be a lot of changes."

Contact Steven Lemongello:

609-272-7275

@SteveLemongello on Twitter

Twists and turns

of dune ordinance

Margate's strict dune ordinance was originally written by the Ventnor group DUNE (Do not Upset our Natural Environment), which filed a petition to get it on the ballot there in 2001.

By then, Margate and Longport's governing bodies had easily approved it, without waiting for it to be placed on the ballot, severely tying their own hands in that they could not approve, appropriate funds, enter into an agreement or authorize acquisition of land for any dune project without a citywide referendum first.

Ventnor ended up approving a different, pro-dune referendum in 2002, and its dunes went up soon after. Then, in April, Longport's Borough Commission rescinded its strict dune ordinance as easily as it was passed. Longport's reasoning: The commission approved it, so they can undo it. The borough now awaits its dunes.

Margate's commissioners were more cautious. There had been a petition in 2001 to place the ordinance on the ballot - unnecessary, as it turned out, because the commission approved it first - but City Solicitor Scott Abbott said it was unclear if the city could be seen as undoing the will of the people if it followed Longport's lead.

The November referendum is not the required binding referendum. It's a nonbinding vote that will serve as a go-ahead for the city to enter into a contract, which would then have to be approved by a referendum.