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BERKELEY TOWNSHIP, N.J. (AP) — The leader of a group of New Jersey beachfront homeowners stood in front of a bulldozer that had plowed through part of a 40-year-old dune that state officials promised would not be diminished as part of a beach replenishment project.
But, he was too late.
Dominic Solazzo, president of the Midway Beach homeowners association in Berkeley Township, says he was horrified at the damage done Monday to a dune his members had painstakingly built up.
"Everyone promised us they wouldn't touch the dunes," he said. "And the first ... thing they did was bulldoze our dune. I was sick to my stomach. I was heartbroken."
Last winter, the homeowners unsuccessfully sued the state and federal governments trying to block the project, noting that the dune their members had built and nurtured over four decades was taller than the one called for under the beach replenishment project. Authorities assured them in court that the dunes would not be shortened.
Solazzo ran to the beach and stood in front of a bulldozer that had already chewed through a section of dune. It had ripped out beach grass and flattened a wide opening that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will use to bring heavy machinery onto the beach for a project just across the border, in neighboring Seaside Park.
"Dominic almost got arrested," said Chuck Cerria, another member of the homeowner association. "He was standing in front of the bulldozer. Passions were running pretty high, and the police were called."
Berkeley Police did not immediately return a call seeking comment Tuesday. Solazzo said officers asked him to move, saying they would arrest him if he did not.
"I pushed it as far as I could," Solazzo said. He stepped aside and police did not issue any charges regarding the incident, he said.
The Army Corps says the opening was called for in its contract to do the beach replenishment, which is being carried out along most of New Jersey's 127-mile coastline following the devastation of Superstorm Sandy in 2012. Areas that had dunes — including Midway Beach and Seaside Park — suffered less damage than those without dunes.
Ed Voigt, a spokesman for the Corps, said the cut-through to allow heavy equipment to access the beach is only temporary, and will be filled in once the work is completed, or sooner, if a strong coastal storm approaches. The area that was temporarily bulldozed will be made whole as part of a new sturdy dune system designed to be maintained for at least 50 years, he said.
"We are not reducing this town's storm protection at all," he said.
But residents are worried about what might happen in the near term.
"Having it opened up like this, with a direct path to the ocean is my biggest fear," said Sharon Franz, who lives a few houses from the beach. "And we're right in the middle of hurricane season."
Jeff Harkins was among a group of Midway beach homeowners who planted the first dune grass on the beach in 1973.
"I feel betrayed," he said. "We were lied to."
Solazzo said he is prepared to stand in the way of any heavy equipment that threatens the remainder of Midway Beach's dunes.
"If they bulldoze any more of our dune for any reason, that will be an arrest-able situation for me," he said. "I will stand my ground next time."
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