A federal judge has ruled that New Jersey can move ahead with a major dune-building project despite objections from the city of Margate.

But the judge left the door open for a future challenge, and officials from Margate say they're confident that they can still stop the project.

On the surface, Judge Renee Bumb's ruling is good news for the dune-building project, which has been in the works for years but picked up steam in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. The Army Corps of Engineers has been preparing to award a contract for dune construction all along the coast, but Margate officials, who believe their system of wooden bulkheads is enough to protect the town, sued to stop them.

The state's plan would create a string of dunes about 12 feet high and more than 80 feet wide, taking up about one-third of Margate's existing beach. Neighboring towns say they support the project.

Thursday's ruling allows the Corps to move ahead with its contract, meaning that dune construction could begin as early as this summer. Larry Ragonese, a spokesman for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, said that was good news for all Shore residents.

"As the mayors of Ventnor and Longport had asked this week, they and their residents wanted us to do this beach project, and asked the Margate folks to help us expedite it," he said. "Now we'll be able to protect all those folks, hopefully in the near future."

He said the state was "a bit disappointed" in the opposition from Margate. "The goal here is very simple," he said. "The governor wants to create a comprehensive coastal protection plan, and that includes the Margate area."

But officials from Margate say they're not finished fighting, and they believe that Bumb's ruling gives them an opening.
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Both in court and in her written opinion, Bumb sharply criticized the state for failing to give the city the chance to challenge the "taking" of its beaches in a state eminent domain process.

While she ruled that the project can move ahead "at this time," she also wrote that because the state did not engage in condemnation hearings in state court, the city appears to have a strong case that it did not get the due process it deserved.

State officials who believe it is enough to compensate Margate financially once construction has begun, she wrote, "miss the constitutional point .... Why NJDEP failed -- and continues to fail -- to follow the procedures set forth in the Eminent Domain Act is baffling."

Bumb wrote that if the state does not provide Margate with a full opportunity to make its case in condemnation hearings before construction begins, city officials can return to her court.

Rob Andrews, the former Congressman and attorney representing the city of Margate, said city officials fully expects to prevail in any state condemnation hearings, where they can argue in detail about the merits of their bulkheads and the potential negative impact of the state's plans. And if those hearings don't happen, Andrews said, he feels good about his chances back in federal court, where the city could continue to argue that due process was violated.

Either way, Andrews said, Bumb's ruling means Margate will be able to "stop the bulldozers."

State officials say their lawyers are still reviewing the judge's ruling, but for their part, they're confident that the project will get under way soon.