MIDDLE TOWNSHIP — When the moon is full, high tides from the Delaware Bay flood Tom Sims’ 10th Avenue property, killing his trees and his lawn.
Saltwater flooding in a hurricane isn’t that unusual on the Delaware Bay coast. What’s unusual here is that a government project allowed the saltwater to come in and residents who lived here were not protected.
In an experiment conducted nearly two decades ago, the Cape May County Mosquito Commission, an independent predecessor to the county Department of Mosquito Control, opened the area up to the tides as a way to kill a particularly nasty freshwater mosquito.
Saltwater flowed into two nearby waterways, Schellenger’s Creek and Green Creek, helping to control the cattail mosquito, which thrives in freshwater wetlands dominated by phragmites. But the tidal flow also killed trees, flooded garages, destroyed backyard gardens and burned out lawns.
“It just comes right up. Every full moon it gets worse and worse. They were supposed to put a dike in but they never did,” said Sims, who lives in the Del Haven section of the township.
Dead trees dot the neighborhood. A look at a Google aerial map shows acres upon acres of dead trees. One neighbor showed pictures of a house and yard full of saltwater last year during Hurricane Irene.
“The township can put a bike path in costing hundreds of thousands of dollars and they can’t protect homeowners. See that dead tree hanging over that power line? I’m waiting for one of them to snap and kill a kid. I’m concerned somebody could get hurt,” Sims said.
Next-door neighbor Bill Bowden, who moved here in 1997, two years before Sims, says the problem is getting worse. Bowden has dead lilacs, hydrangeas and butterfly bushes in his yard. He has picked saltwater fish off his driveway after a full-moon tide.
“There’s no keeping grass or anything like that. We’re at seven-foot elevation and with the hurricane we had eight (feet) of water. We literally had fish in the street,” Bowden said.
Sims is concerned with floods that come without a coastal storm. He has copies of 1998 plans by the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey’s Coastal Research Center that call for construction of an 850-foot sand dike along the Bryn Mawr Avenue right of way to protect homeowners from the newly restored salt marsh. It was never constructed, and Sims wants to know why.
A Cape May County Mosquito Commission application for a state environmental permit to construct the dike also never amounted to anything, and Sims wants to know why. The commission has since been replaced by the Cape May County Department of Mosquito Control.
Sims said he has asked about the dike and was “shoved from one official to another.” Several have told him it could not be built for environmental reasons.
Mayor Dan Lockwood said it is a very complex issue that involves the state Department of Environmental Protection — because of wetlands — and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, due to navigable waters. He said Cape May County mosquito control determines the amount of saltwater coming in.
Township Committeeman Tim Donohue said various agencies are trying to bring the residents relief but “it’s getting snarled up in red tape.”
Director of Mosquito Control Peter Bosak referred inquires to Cape May County’s legal staff since the issue may spawn litigation. Two residents have filed a tort notice against the county because of the project.
Assistant County Counsel James Arsenault said one previous lawsuit was settled years ago but more recently several residents filed a tort claims notice. Arsenault said the Mosquito Commission was an independent agency when it was involved with the project, but it has since become a county department.
“They are no longer an independent agency and the county was left holding the bag for what preceded this,” Arsenault said.
As for the dike, Arsenault pointed to New Orleans as one reason the dike was not built. Not only is the federal Army Corps of Engineers involved, he said, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also is at the table due to the nearby proximity of the Cape May National Wildlife Refuge.
“With earthen dikes you create a manmade situation and are responsible when they fail,” Arsenault said.
Bowden said there might be an engineering solution such as a tide gate that stops unusually high tides from entering while still allowing rainwater to escape. A tide gate was recently installed at Cox Hall Creek on the bay in Lower Township. He said this would protect the environment and residents.
“The DEP’s preferred solution is to allow nature to take its course in the area. The DEP has a fixed idea of what’s best for the environment and it may not be what’s best for the established communities,” Arsenault said.
Donohue made arrangements Thursday to have Marc DeBlasio, the municipal engineer, contact the residents.
Sen. Jeff Van Drew, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, also has been involved. Van Drew said residents who live in a mobile home park at the north end of the marsh — Del Haven is on the southern end — contacted him about dying trees.
“The DEP said there’s nothing we can do. They can’t even take the dead trees down because there are owls in there,” Van Drew said.
The salt marsh restoration project was heralded in 1994 as a way to control mosquitoes. Salt hay farmers had closed the marsh off to tidal flow in the 1920s, but after they stopped farming the marsh was invaded by phragmites.
Arsenault saw little chance of an easy solution with so many agencies involved.
“There’s a lot of moving pieces and pieces that may not move in the same direction,” he said.
Contact Richard Degener: