Stronger Than the Ocean?

Text & Photos by K. Cecchini

If going down the shore is a rite of passage in New Jersey, then owning a piece of it is a dream. So how do you convince homeowners to return their seaside fantasy to Mother Nature before she sends the repo man?

The Jersey Shore After Hurricane Sandy
Stairs separated from a boardwalk on the Jersey Shore after Hurricane Sandy

Hurricane Sandy was the most devastating storm to lick away at beach front zip codes since 1962 from the Highlands to Cape May. With its winds and rains, Sandy also brought questions about the Jersey Shore’s future. And, although many homeowners rally to rebuild, Dr. Ben Horton of Rutgers University’s Marine and Coastal Sciences Department warned that the Jersey Shore’s vulnerabilities are increasing.

In 2013, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimated a global mean sea level rise of over three feet by the end of the century. This change will largely be due to the greater volume of a warming ocean and melting glaciers. However, Dr. Horton said, sea level change is not uniform and New Jersey has other factors biting at its shoreline.

For instance, most of the shore’s real estate is low-lying and Dr. Horton said that the land’s height continues to decrease because of freshwater removal below the land’s surface. This allows the sea to overtake more of the land.

Of course, there are many ways to mitigate the impact. In response to Sandy, Governor Chris Christie called for sand dune construction and the nourishing of beaches with additional sand. 
But John A. Miller of the New Jersey Association for Flood Management (NJAFM) warned that these efforts are only a short term fix; he said it’s “a speed bump for energy coming off the ocean”. Furthermore, in municipalities like Sea Bright which has the Shrewsbury River on its western border, Miller said, “it doesn’t matter how big the sea wall is, it doesn’t matter how big the dune is, it doesn’t matter what width the beach nourishment is, the water’s going to flank the town.”

On the other hand, Mr. Miller said he was pleased at how well Governor Christie implemented NJAFM’s recommendations around the Raritan and Passaic Basins.

The first recommendation? Blue Acres.

Miller calls the voluntary Blue Acres program “a restart on life”. Through federal and local fund matching, Blue Acres offers to buy property in flood zones at pre-damage value. The land is then designated as a natural buffer for their communities in future flooding. Although it can be a difficult choice for most homeowners, the program has proven to be particularly successful in river communities. In fact, Miller hailed Mayor Verango and Consultant Jeff Ward for having made Wayne Township “the champion for buyouts in New Jersey”.

After Sandy, the state successfully promoted buyouts in inland towns like Woodbridge and most recently, Manville, but the program is still virtually nonexistent in coastal communities. Why perpetuate temporary fixes like sand dunes instead of removing people from vulnerable areas? Miller said that he believed the reason the state administration avoids the coastline is because of its perceived economic value as a vacation and investment community.

However, Blue Acres‘ Communication Director Andrea Friedman said that she believes that for the last two years while some seaside homeowners are interested, their municipalities have resisted the program. Union Beach is one such town; Sandy flooded more than half of its 2,200 homes and some families have yet to return, but Blue Acreshas made no inroads.

On April 8th, (name of publication) spoke with Union Beach Mayor Paul Smith, after Governor Christie and Army Corp of Engineer officers delivered news that they would be fulfilling Union Beach’s 20 year old request with a $202 million network of safeguards that includes levees, pump stations, dunes, beach nourishment and much larger flood gates. The elated Mayor said of the project, “I think this is truly going to help people make their decision to come back home.”
When it comes to Blue Acres, Smith said that he would support the program in his bedroom community “if it helps people get back on their feet”.
Then why have Union Beach homeowners not been able to opt for it? The mayor contends, with residents, that he has considered it but tells them that “they’re not going to buy your home, they want the whole block” so Union Beach has not made use of the program.
A major factor in rejecting Blue Acres, according to Friedman, is that governments are concerned that they will lose tax revenue if the compromised properties are sold back to the state and Mayor Smith confirmed the fear, “in a small town like ours, we really can’t afford to lose those (blocks of homes), their revenue.”
But NJAFM’s Miller disagrees. He thinks these properties may actually be revenue negative, “The services provided and the risk to first responders and debris removal and all the costs around these chronically flooded properties are increasing all the time with climate changes.”.
So is Blue Acres revenue positive or revenue negative? The Regional Plan Association is now studying the economic and health impacts of buyouts. In the meantime, another flood could change minds. Miller, who emphasized that he has no desire to see more flooding, calls it “giving people religion”.

Are buyouts a ‘managed retreat’? They are often denigrated with this defeatist connotation; it’s something most Americans would call ‘un-American’. But Jerseyians might not take that for an answer. Perhaps handing the keys over to Mother Nature before she takes them is really ‘Jersey Strong’.

2 thoughts on “Stronger Than the Ocean?

  1. Hello there! This post couldn’t be written any better!

    Looking at this post remkinds me of my previous roommate!
    He constantly kept talking about this. I am going to send this post
    tto him. Pretty sure he’llhave a great read. Thank you for sharing!

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