Dock Roaders Want Town Support to Move Westecunk Creek Dredge Project Forward

By Victoria Ford | Oct 30, 2019
Photo by: Victoria Ford

Eagleswood Township — Sporting T-shirts that read “WE(st Creek) Support Dredging,” some Dock Road residents addressed the Eagleswood Township Committee Monday night to ask what’s up with plans to dredge Westecunk Creek.

The creek was last fully dredged in the 1960s and partially dredged in the ’80s. Since then, marinas and boat owners have faced continual challenges with access to and from their docks. The most recent plans for the state Department of Transportation’s Office of Maritime Resources to dredge have been stalled by a lawsuit filed by residents and environmental groups who oppose the placement of dredge material in a confined disposal facility for ongoing dredge material management on a 26-acre parcel at the end of Dock Road.

On behalf of the group that desperately wants the dredging project to move forward, Sandy Morris told the committee they want to meet with the state representatives to go over the details of the CDF plan, but the state will not talk due to the pending litigation.

In 2016, the plaintiffs in the joint lawsuit (filed in 2014) won a victory when the DEP terminated its permits for the project.

The plaintiffs in the suit are the organizations Environment New Jersey and the New Jersey Conservation Foundation; and residents Martha Steinberg, Gamal El-Zoghby, Michael Knight, Ricardo Valdes, Michael and Michelle Pierro, David Fox, Andreas Beutler and Michaela Banck.

“Half these people don’t even live on Dock Road,” Morris said.

Residents pressed town officials to get more involved in the fight to get the creek dredged.

Debra Murphy of D&S Marina Services on Dock Road told the committee, “We need your help. You all seem very defensive toward helping us. … We want to feel that you’re in our corner.”

Mayor Michael Pasternak agreed, the lawsuit is “a dark cloud hanging over us.”

“Honestly, the system, the way it works, is … they can appeal it all the way up to the Supreme Court of the state,” Eagleswood Attorney Thomas Monahan said. “I’m sorry to tell you it just takes a long time. That’s not something we can control. We can’t change it.”

Murphy reminded the committee, “We all are paying to be on the water.” With the creek in the state it’s in, businesses such as hers suffer, and boat owners can only come and go at high tide.

Committeewoman Debra Rivas suggested the parties on both sides of the issue, or at least representatives of each group, get together to talk about possible compromises.

To the residents gathered, Rivas asked, “Have you sat down with the plaintiffs in order to find out where they stand and maybe to try to convince them to stop the lawsuit?” A meeting might clear up confusion and yield solutions. “There is so much misinformation out there,” she said.

Pasternak and Deputy Mayor Nick Sommaripa agreed they would facilitate such a meeting and offer town hall as a meeting place.

Ultimately, both groups share a desire to get the creek dredged as well as some concerns about the proximity of a CDF to the new gas line New Jersey Natural Gas is working on installing on Dock Road (to cross the bay to Long Beach Island).

The group against the CDF – those whose properties are closest to it – are worried about heavy trucks hauling dredge material, possibly from all over the state, to and from the site in perpetuity.

“We tried to get as much information as possible (from the state),” Pasternak said. “Nothing is going to be brought here via barge, or from Cape May (or Point Pleasant, Hoboken or Jersey City); that’s not even cost effective. That’s just paranoia.”

The dredge material conveyed to the CDF would come only via pipe, he said.

From a 2016 press release out of Environment NJ:

“In a terse interagency letter, the New Jersey Department of Environment Protection announced it was terminating the permits for the construction of a 225,000 cubic-yard dredge spoil dump adjacent to residential homes, the Barnegat Bay and the Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge in Eagleswood, Ocean County. The action was directly related to a nine-year struggle by Eagleswood citizens and a joint lawsuit filed by Environment New Jersey, the New Jersey Conservation Foundation and Eagleswood citizens in late September 2014 to block the construction of the dredge spoil dump because of the violation of the Coastal Area Facility Review Act (CAFRA) and the Coastal Zone Management Act (CZMA).

“The legal victory was clouded by recent activity involving bulldozers on the Dock Road site, at the request of NJDOT. To prevent further illegal construction activity, the plaintiffs filed a ‘notice of appeal’ on Earth Day against the DEP for its failure to prevent the DOT from engaging in such site clearance activities as cutting trees down and slicing crude roads through the site.” Environment NJ Director Doug O’Malley was quoted as saying, “We will have to depend on the courts to prevent this environmental disaster,” had said.

The plaintiffs felt the DEP violated the Coastal Area Facility Review Act by not submitting an environmental impact statement as part of their CAFRA permit application. The DEP felt the project is exempt from CAFRA because the site was previously used for the 1983 dredging operation, when the property was privately owned.

Since that time, the parcel has reverted back to a natural area and is surrounded by the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge and the Barnegat Bay. It was purchased by the DOT in 2006.

Some say CDFs resemble open-air landfills, where dredge material is deposited and dewatered. The environmental group’s position is, before a CDF is permitted anywhere along New Jersey’s coastline, “DEP should require strict CAFRA compliance, including submission of an EIS that discloses the full range of cumulative and secondary impacts, such as those caused by the DEP plan to promote mining of dewatered dredge spoils for so-called beneficial reuse.”

In February 2018, the DOT Office of Maritime Resources applied to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection for a freshwater wetlands general permit. The plaintiffs continue to fight it every step of the way.

Eagleswood’s official position, as stated at the August committee meeting, is the town supports the dredging, but opposes the use of a 26-acre property at the end of Dock Road as a regional confined disposal facility. Pasternak said the town favors exploring alternative placement/uses for disposed soils, such as living shorelines. He said he had been working on a project with former Stafford Township Mayor John Spodofora to use the dredge material to build up sedge islands in the bay, as a protective barrier for the mainland. They had pitched it to the DEP in Trenton twice and got legislators on board, Pasternak said. “I saw this as a win-win. Unfortunately, John’s not in office anymore, and the plan fell by the wayside.”

“We feel these spoils could be put in a better place and make everybody happy at the same time,” Pasternak said.

Meanwhile, the NJNG pipeline project on the Eagleswood side is on hold indefinitely until the remaining needed permits are obtained from the DEP. “They’re stopping operations right now,” according to Pasternak. The pipe and storage yards will stay where they are; crews will be working off of the barge in the middle of the bay, and on the Long Beach Island side. By the time the permits are issued, Carson, the project’s contractor, may be on another project entirely.

“It’s a fluid situation,” Pasternak said.

Murphy noted the compromised roadway where digging has begun is potentially dangerous to motorists, especially given the frequency of flooding from nor’easters.

“It’s a real hardship on all of us,” she said.

On the topic of flooded roadways, Morris added, Eagleswood should implement a “no wake” ordinance for Dock Road, following the example of Ship Bottom.

— Victoria Ford

(Photo by: Ryan Morrill)
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