Harvey Cedars Mayor Jonathan Oldham calls his town "a poster child" for why he thinks building dunes and replenishing beaches along the New Jersey coast are really good ideas.
More than two million cubic yards of sand were pumped onto Harvey Cedars' mile-long beachfront in 2010. And like the rest of Long Beach Island, the town suffered extensive flooding and residential and commercial property damage when Hurricane Sandy roared ashore Oct. 29, 2012, and created a $68 billion disaster up and down the coast.
"If we didn't have those dunes and the beach fill before Sandy hit, we would have looked just like Mantoloking," said Oldham, referring to the Ocean County beach town 30 miles north where the storm extensively damaged or washed out to sea every house and where the ocean surge cut in half the island upon which Mantoloking sits.
Oldham acknowledges it wasn't always easy to go along with what the state and the Army Corps of Engineers wanted to do. If engineers could have shaved two feet off the proposed 22-foot-high dune or streamlined the entire process to make it move more quickly, they might have made getting easements from about 100 property owners a lot easier.
"It took so long that many times I had obtained an easement from one owner and then a house would be sold and I'd have to go back and get another easement from the new owner," Oldham said.
In the end, there were about a half-dozen holdouts who forced the state in 2010 to seize the easements on those properties through eminent domain. The entire process took years - and a lot of arm-twisting and promises - and even changes in local ordinances to protect the rights of some property owners, he said.
So when Oldham hears about other beach towns fighting a Christie administration plan to rebuild the state's coastal dune system in the aftermath of Sandy, he offers a three-word piece of advice: "Do the project."
The latest battle between the state Department of Environmental Protection and the City of Margate is over whether to build a $74 million dune project along the entire length of Absecon Island, which includes Atlantic City, Ventnor, Margate, and Longport. In such projects, the Army Corps designs the engineering specifications and supervises dune or beach construction by an outside firm.
A handful of coastal towns, including Bay Head in Ocean County and Wildwood Crest in Cape May County, have resisted Gov. Christie's edict on the dune-building project. And Longport had long held out over voluntarily giving its public easements to the state for beach-replenishment projects, but after Sandy, it handed over the rights so this latest project could move forward.
Army Corps officials say some beach towns - where local officials are sometimes pressured by residents or political interests to resist the projects - may not at first be aboard with the concept of beach building but often undergo a sea change once a severe storm hits.
"We've absolutely seen that change from people that didn't want to sign on at first but then see what the forces of nature can do, especially without some protection," said Keith Watson, a coastal engineer and project manager for the Army Corps who has worked on a number of coastal projects in New Jersey.
But Watson acknowledges it's not always a smooth process and can take years - even a decade - to accomplish.
So the conundrum in Margate - where the concept of building a dune has been met with two no-go voter referendums in the last year, yet where there is practically no beach or dune left in some spots - doesn't surprise Watson.
"There's a lot of misinformation out there," Watson said. "A lot of people just don't understand the concept of storm-damage-reduction projects."
Compared with the areas of the Shore north of where Sandy made landfall in Brigantine - where the storm surge was the highest and the winds strongest - Margate and points south sustained far less damage.
But in places like Long Beach Island, where the wrath of Sandy may have been felt the hardest, where there were dunes, "the dunes held up and did their job," Watson said.
"I'm convinced that if Mantoloking had the kind of dunes that Long Beach Island had, that island probably wouldn't have been split in half and there would have been far less damage overall to the homes there," Watson said.
Flanked by Ventnor to its north and Longport to its south, Margate, along with beachfront-property owners Morton and Roberta Shiekman, filed suit in federal court against the state to stop the DEP from seizing municipal and personal real estate easements that would have allowed the Army Corps to proceed with the project.
Margate has argued that the state has a "one-size-fits-all plan" when it comes to the dunes, which doesn't fit with the town's vision for its beachfront. Officials and residents contend building a 20-foot-high dune would obscure views of the beach and ocean, take up too much room on the beachfront, cause massive drainage problems during high tide and flooding, and scour sand off the beaches during storms.
U.S. District Judge Renee Marie Bumb in January ruled that the project could proceed to the contract-bidding stage but kicked the case back to state court, saying the DEP would need to follow proper procedures and declare eminent domain on property where it has been unable to otherwise obtain easements, including municipal lands.
In the meantime, the DEP said, it was committed to moving ahead with the Absecon Island project.
"We remain undeterred in our efforts to have a comprehensive beach and dune system along the Shore, including Margate," said Bob Considine, a spokesman for the DEP. "Our only goal has been to have better protection from severe storm events for homes and businesses. We saw what Sandy did and we know that engineered beaches and dunes work. So our intent is the same."
Officials in Margate, however, say that although they are still dead set against the engineering plan the Army Corps is pushing - to build a 20-foot-high dune - the town is willing to negotiate with state and federal officials.
"We are not set to fight this tooth and nail to have no dune project at all," said Richard Deaney, Margate's business administrator. "We are willing to negotiate . . . to find a solution. We're all in a holding pattern right now, but we realize something needs to be done to protect Margate and the other towns."