CAMDEN, N.J. _ In what could be Margate's last stand against a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plan to construct dunes on its beaches, a civil engineer described what the judge called a "big parade of horribles" that would turn the beach into a junkyard as a result of the project.
Chuck Dutill, a civil engineer and hydrologist, said the dune project would create a 100 foot wide pond of murky water between the dune and the bulkhead that would run the entire length of Margate.
He estimated that ground and storm water - along with mosquitoes, oil, grease, car parts and pesticides - could accumulate to a depth of between 2.5 and 5 feet at high tide, and deeper and longer lasting after a storm.
"People will have to cross that to get back and forth to the beach," Dutill testified in U.S. District Court in Camden, before Judge Renee Marie Bumb. "It's a beach. People walk barefoot. They wear flip flops. It's my opinion that's its unsafe and unhealthy."
Bumb, though, seemed skeptical and said his description of a beach turned into "the junkyard of Margate," seemed "fantastical."
The hearing stems from a lawsuit filed by six Margate homeowners who have houses, mostly second homes, near the beach, including Philadelphia real estate executive Frank Binswanger Jr.
The judge is being asked to issue an injunction that would halt the project due to "irreparable harm" that may result.
Gov. Christie has ordered dunes along the entire stretch of 127 mile coastline in New Jersey. The city of Margate lost its earlier challenge to the project, and the Army Corps awarded a $42 million contract in November.
Attorney Jordan Rand, representing the Margate homeowners, asked Dutill if he considered it acceptable to ask beach goers to "cross a moat to get to dry beach."
"It's not safe to be crossing," he said. "It's going to be very inconvenient for everybody, very unpleasant."
In the days following a storm, he said, the water flowing into that trench will carry "oil, grease, materials from cars, insecticides, pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers," he said. "It's going to carry trash, animal feces, soil, debris."
The judge, however, seemed unconvinced.
"You've described a big parade of horribles: animal feces, oils, adults being hurt. It sounds pretty fantastical. Is that in some way hyperbole if you don't mind? Is that your testimony?"
"That is absolutely my testimony," Dutill replied.
"What I'm hearing is what the defendant proposes to do is turn the beach of Margate into the junkyard of Margate," the judge said.
At the end of a day of testimony, Bumb seemed disinclined to issue the requested preliminary injunction, but she said she would hear additional testimony and argument Jan. 10.
The judge questioned the idea of irreprable harm to homeowners and noted that Margate city engineer, Ed Walberg, testified that the city had considered a drainage system that would cost about $9 million, and would mostly solve any problem created by the dunes. It would take a year to design and construct.
"One summer at the beach, the beach goers can't jump over the puddles?" said Bumb. "Is that irreparable?"
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and state Department of Environmental Protection contend that the consequences described by Dutill are exaggerated and that the dunes provide essential protection in the event of a serious storm.
The judge noted that current conditions in Margate can already create ponding on the beach.
Dutill said the ponding will be caused both by ground water that will rise up in the trench the Corps is proposing to build, and due to trapped storm water that now flows through "scuppers" at street ends to the ocean. The dune will block that flow.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Anne Taylor suggested Dutill was reaching conclusions based on "simple arithmetic," a claim which he did not dispute.
She later called Army Corps engineer Michael Bartles, who gave a complex recounting of his modeling that showed far less dramatic flooding.
Still, Bartles said the Corps had modified its plan because the dunes would have increased storm water levels in the street, a modification he acknowledged would now lead to more standing water on the beach.
Margate officials, no longer a party to the lawsuit, attended the hearing.
"We continue to have legitimate concerns about the ponding," said Commissioner Maury Blumberg. "We believe it's real. At high tide, you'll be walking through a foot of water to get to the beach."
Keith Watson, the U.S. Army Corps project manager, said the $42 million initial contract for the Absecon Island beach protection project was awarded in November and that, unless enjoined by the court, would proceed. Construction could begin in Atlantic City first as early as February, and could hit the beaches in Margate as early as March, he said.