Judge rejects Zika argument, rules dune project can proceed

AP News
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Posted: Feb 08, 2017 1:28 PM
Judge rejects Zika argument, rules dune project can proceed

MARGATE, N.J. (AP) — A federal judge has decided not to block a protective sand dune project along part of the New Jersey shoreline, ruling that "the parade of horribles" feared by opponents of the plan — including transmission of the Zika virus — is not a realistic concern.

Citing the mosquito-borne illness that has caused birth defects in tropical areas was the most far-reaching of the many tactics used by property owners trying to prevent Gov. Chris Christie's administration from carrying out its dune project four years after Superstorm Sandy ravaged parts of the Jersey shore

Seven oceanfront homeowners in Margate, just south of Atlantic City, are suing the state and federal governments seeking to block their portion of the dune project, which opponents are battling up and down the New Jersey shoreline.

And while their lawsuit remains active, Friday's ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Renee Bumb casts doubt on whether they will be able to prevail. A lawyer for the homeowners said they are reviewing their legal options.

They are one of at least four groups of Jersey shore property owners who are battling the dune proposal in court. This week, homeowners in Bay Head are trying to convince a judge that the $5 million they spend on a privately built rock wall provides better and more economical protection than the dune project.

But that judge is the same one who last year upheld New Jersey's right to use eminent domain to seize strips of beachfront land for the dune project.

In the Margate case, Bumb ruled that the worst fears expressed by the homeowners either weren't likely to happen, or could easily be fixed by engineering solutions or, failing that, cash compensation.

In debunking a report prepared by an engineer for the homeowners, the judge wrote that his "conclusion that the project would result in Margate's beach turning into a 'junkyard,' complete with a lagoon full of garbage and feces over which residents would have to wade, is directly contradicted" by more credible evidence.

"While the court understands plaintiffs' fears in light of the dismal picture painted by (the homeowners' engineer), the record simply does not support (his) opinions," she wrote.

The judge also wrote that the storm protection offered by the dunes to the public is a worthwhile goal, and noted that significant construction delays would expose the state and federal government to fines from the contractor.

In their lawsuit, the homeowners claim that puddles or ponds that would collect behind the dunes would allow water to stand for days, providing a breeding ground for mosquitoes that can carry and transmit Zika.

Several scientists said the possibility of the dune project causing a Zika outbreak is remote at best, noting that the type of mosquito that typically carries it isn't a problem in New Jersey. The only cases spread by local mosquitoes so far have been in Florida and Texas. And the argument has not been raised by any of the other Jersey shore towns seeking to block the project.

The judge ruled that any puddles or ponding that might occur following construction of the dunes are not likely to be worse than what is already there without the dunes.

And the state Department of Environmental Protection has promised to fix any drainage problems that might result from the work.

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