NORTH WILDWOOD, N.J. (AP) -- The sandstorm being waged between New Jersey environmental officials and a defiant shore town bolstering its dunes without state permission is intensifying.
The state Department of Environmental Protection said Thursday that it has fined North Wildwood over $12 million for past construction actions along its beachfront, including the destruction of vegetated sand dunes and wetlands, as well as the unauthorized construction of a bulkhead and beachfront amenities including showers and walkways.
But a long-running dispute at the heart of the litigation might soon come to an end: The last two shore towns that needed to sign on to a full-blown beach replenishment project for the area did so on Wednesday, and an announcement on when the beaches might be widened is expected soon.
The fines come as the city and the Department of Environmental Protection are fighting in court over more recent emergency repairs North Wildwood made to its beachfront following a significant storm in October -- despite a warning from the state not to do so.
North Wildwood is suing the state for $21 million, the amount it alleges it has had to spend on its own to protect the city and its residents from serious storms over the past decade.
"Clearly these fines were a retaliatory move after we filed suit against the DEP," Mayor Patrick Rosenello said. "They created this issue by not doing their job, then when we moved to protect ourselves, they retaliate against us. It really is just one more indication that this whole matter has to be resolved in front of a judge and not through the DEP's administrative procedures."
The state declined comment, citing the pending litigation. But it did release copies of three violation notices issued between Jan. 11 and 24 assessing fines for various infractions of state laws and regulations totaling over $12 million.
One of the most serious involves work the city did several years ago along a section of beachfront that it said had become badly eroded. The state said the work destroyed 8 acres of vegetated dunes, including 6.7 acres of critical wildlife habitat, and 1.1 acres of freshwater wetlands.
North Wildwood built a vinyl and steel bulkhead for about 10 blocks without state approval, saying it needed to act urgently to protect lives and property.
It used the same argument in October to make emergency repairs to its dunes two blocks from the earlier work, defying a state prohibition on such work. The state warned that doing the work the city wanted to do -- and eventually did -- could further damage the beachfront and damage or destroy critical wildlife habitat and coastal ecosystems.
At issue is the lack of a beach replenishment program that virtually the entire rest of the Jersey Shore has received over the past decade.
State officials have said such a project could not move forward without necessary approvals from all four beachfront towns that it would affect: North Wildwood and Wildwood Crest, which had previously signed, and Wildwood and Lower Township.
Those two towns both approved participation in the project on Wednesday, Rosenello said, although the state has not yet announced their agreement.
Rosenello said the last two towns' approval should clear the way for the kind of comprehensive beach widening and dune construction or restoration project that North Wildwood has been seeking for years.
The Department of Environmental Protection and North Wildwood are scheduled for a trial in November on their recent dispute, unless it can be amicably resolved before then.