Mark and Lee Ann Kampf and their three children vacationed in Ocean City for decades before deciding they were finished visiting the resort island.
Instead, they wanted to live there.
So the Kampfs moved from Valley Forge, Pa., to the Jersey Shore earlier this year, an uncommon occurrence these days.
“I think there are other folks out there that would consider moving here,” Lee Ann Kampf said. “You just have to show them that there are opportunities.”
Government officials, real estate agents, business owners and locals on barrier islands hope Kampf is right. They are trying to find ways to draw families and year-round residents after a decade of population declines. That downward trend, driven by soaring property values in the early 2000s that “priced out” many families, has led to empty classrooms, fewer regular customers for businesses and less community involvement, in some cases.
“It’s a whole trickle-down deal,” said Ocean City Planning Board Chairman John Loeper. “Year-rounders are what make a vibrant island. In the past, the population has been where it is now, but the island has grown considerably, and people have gotten used to that.”
Despite the sentiment, few proactive policies have promoted more permanent residency on barrier islands in New Jersey. Elected leaders have reacted by sharing and consolidating public services and trying to attract visitors to support businesses.
Ocean City leaders are trying to bring people back.
The school district last year began participating in the state school-choice program to boost its enrollment. Several dozen students from mainland communities now go to school in Ocean City.
Kampf, who has two children in middle school and one in high school, said she knows families who are moving to the island because of their good experiences in the district.
In October, City Council introduced a number of revisions to its zoning regulations to encourage single-family housing and mixed-use development that would be more attractive to year-round residents.
The Planning Board recommended those revisions in a re-examination report of the city’s Master Plan after more than a year of work, and Loeper said increasing the year-round population was a key concern.
“That’s what drives the school, the shopping, the Halloween parade, the Christmas parade, the community food drive,” he said.
Loeper said it is too soon to say whether Hurricane Sandy’s devastation would significantly change anything in the plan. He said he seriously doubted it would leave any long-lasting fears about living on barrier islands.
The re-examination report would require that new construction put the lowest floors at least 2 two feet above the historical base flood level, something that would have better protected many properties in the city, he said.
“I think the rebound will happen very quickly. I think for people who are thinking about investing here, the storm isn’t going to stop them,” Loeper said. He said that was true after the March Storm of 1962, to which Sandy is often compared.
All of the island towns that line the Atlantic Ocean in New Jersey have fewer permanent residents now than they did in 2000, and many are down to 1970s population levels.
Ocean City has lost more than 3,600 residents since 2000, nearly a quarter of its population, and more in sheer numbers of people than all but two other municipalities in the state.
East Orange and Irvington Township, both in Essex County, each lost thousands more people than Ocean City, but each had more than 60,000 residents in 2000, compared with Ocean City’s 15,378.
The U.S. Census Bureau released statistics in the summer estimating that Ocean City lost another 82 residents by 2011, bringing the permanent population to 11,619.
The general explanation for the drop is that longtime homeowners sold their properties to seasonal residents while the housing market was booming and moved either to a warmer climate or a larger home on the mainland.
With home values so high, most young families found they could not afford to buy property, and there have been fewer people to replace older longtime residents as they have died.
At the same time, Gary Jessel, president of Fox Real Estate and vice chairman of Ocean City’s Planning Board, said he believes the Census underestimates how many people spend the majority of the year in the city, believing they list their primary residence out of state for tax and insurance purposes.
Jessel said he thinks the trend is starting to turn around. Home values have dropped from their peaks, and people are looking to buy new permanent residences rather than investment properties they hope to quickly resell, he said.
Clay Rossiter, a lifelong Ocean City resident and an agent with Fox Real Estate, said he was unaware of how much the city’s population has dropped since 2000, but the 39-year-old also noted that the population now is what it was when he was growing up in the 1970s.
In recent years, he has seen older residents die and have their homes sold by their children. Lately, though, he has seen some new, relatively young parents move into his neighborhood on the island.
“They wanted to utilize the school systems,” he said of one couple who recently moved from the Philadelphia area. “They didn’t mind relocating here to get away from the city.”
That brings up the issue of jobs, since South Jersey’s southeastern corner is far from the population centers of Philadelphia and New York City and their high-paying careers.
Both Mark and Lee Ann Kampf are examples of how that may become less of an issue that limits people from taking permanent residence at the shore.
Mark works in information technology, and Lee Ann is an appraiser. They both can work mostly from home. They downsized houses to live in Ocean City, but they said they love it.
“Ocean City’s this little gem. There aren’t that many places like it anymore,” Lee Ann Kampf said.
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