Margate's effort to bar a massive sand dune from its beaches may be over, but as city officials drove the beach last week the dune project - due to start in the fall - seemed as welcome as sand fleas.
"The dunes will create potential problems with drainage," City Commissioner John Amodeo, head of public safety, declared from the backseat of a municipal SUV.
His observation won a nod from Public Works Director Frank Ricciotti, who was driving, and a "yup" from city engineer Ed Walberg, who sat in back with Amodeo. Suddenly the SUV was filled with talk of "ponding" and "blockage" and the "Army Corps."
An Army Corps engineer said later that their concerns were unfounded.
On May 31, the Margate City Commission voted unanimously to end its three-year effort to block the state's acquisition of 87 city-owned easements so that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers could build an 80-foot-wide dune as protection against storm surges.
Gov. Christie endorsed a dune project for the full length of the Jersey coast following the massive devastation by Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Much of it is now in place.
But Margate balked, insisting its own system of bulkheads protects the ocean side of the city against storm surges, and voters twice authorized city officials to challenge the plan in court.
In April, however, State Superior Court Judge Julio Mendez ruled in Atlantic County that a dune would provide better protection than the bulkhead. The state and Army Corps could proceed, Mendez said.
The city, which had spent more than $300,000 battling the project, reluctantly concluded that further legal maneuvering was futile, Business Administrator Richard Deaney said last week.
At issue now, local officials say, is how well the unwanted dune project will fit in.
Light rain spattered the windshield as the three crept north over the wet sand, populated this morning by laughing gulls.
No day for beachgoers, it was ideal for showing how water drains from the easternmost side of Margate - and why the city still doesn't want the dune project it feels forced to accept.
"It's going to be one continuous dune on our beaches," explained Amodeo.
At Decatur, Benson, and Cedar Grove Avenues, they also noted the ground-level "scuppers," or storm water outlets, that pierce each bulkhead, and the tiny ponds that form in the sand below them.
Then the group arrived at Vendome Avenue. Here, a wooden bulkhead stands between the street and the sand. And just to the north stands one of Margate's rare existing dunes. Capped by grass, it is 13 feet tall, double the height of the dune to come.
But here also, there is a gateway for beachgoers, who can walk along a broad, blue mat toward the ocean.
"This is one of our handicap access points," said Amodeo, who had followed Ricciotti out of the SUV.
Margate's beaches are "user friendly," said Amodeo, and 28 of its 42 street ends have ground-level access points, without stairs, like this one.
"We spent a lot of money building these," he said, "but now we will have obstacles."
The new, continuous dune will block 18 of these access points, according to Amodeo, because federal regulations require just one every half-mile. Anyone pushing a stroller or wheelchair will have a 51/2-foot climb once the dune is in place.
But of even greater concern, say these city officials, the new dune could entrap water in heavy rains both here and at the scuppers.
"This opening will no longer be here," said Ricciotti, pointing to the broad path of the wheelchair-friendly mat. Its gentle slope leads storm water away from homes and streets and toward the sea.
"Our concern," he said, "is that after a heavy rain, there will be no way to get the water out of here."
By "here" he meant the 25-foot flat surface of sand that will exist between the bulkhead and the completed dune.
"You don't have to be a rocket scientist," said Amodeo, "to know that the water table rises" when it can't escape.
But Harry Friebel, a coastal engineer for the Philadelphia District of the Army Corps of Engineers, said Margate's worries about ponding would likely fade once the dune is in place.
"We acknowledge that Margate has a unique drainage system that drains oil [dripped onto streets from autos] onto the beach through the scuppers," Friebel said Friday.
"It's not what we see elsewhere along the Jersey coast, and it's not ideal," said Friebel. "But we don't want to induce drainage issues for Margate with the current design."
The corps' design, he said, calls for lowering by 21/2 feet the sand level between the bulkhead and the dune. "That will create a storage area so that water can drain through the scuppers . . . and create one giant lagoon."
The water in the lagoon should percolate through the sand and into the water table within 24 to 36 hours, he said.
Ed Voigt, spokesman for the corps' Philadelphia district, said he expected it would have bids on the project by late summer and that construction of the dune could begin in the fall.
Known as the Absecon Island Project, it will complete the southern 10 blocks of the dune that went unbuilt in Ventnor, to the north, extend through Margate, and continue south into Longport.
It will be funded entirely by the federal government, said Voigt, who declined to estimate what it might cost.
Nick Russo, Longport's mayor, said he was looking forward to seeing the new dune in place.
During Sandy, he said, the four midsize dunes at the north end of his town had protected homes and streets from the massive sand migration that struck the borough's south end.
"We had 12, 16 inches going way back," said Russo, "with police cars and fire trucks and ambulances that couldn't move.
"I'm satisfied that dunes do, in fact, protect," he said.