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Rising sea level imperils future of bayshore hamlet in Cumberland County

 DOWNE TOWNSHIP — Four floods in less than two years.

Patricia Pew built her Money Island home in 1996 and asked engineers then whether the house, which now sits across a narrow road from the water of Nantuxent Creek at high tide, would flood during big storms. They told her not to worry.

For 14 years, the house stayed dry. Then the flooding began in April 2011 and hasn’t stopped.

Waterfront property in parts of this tiny community has little value. Three quarters of the septic systems in the community violate state health codes, according to county health department documents. As erosion increases, floods continue and the effects of sea-level rise intensify, some residents and property owners now wonder how long they will be able to continue living here. While many have vowed to rebuild and stay, others would like nothing better than to leave — if they could.

Pew has invested her life savings into the two-story house that faces the mouth of the creek and backs to the marsh. She had to retire from her nursing job due to illness and a disabling injury. Even if she wanted to leave the house with the unencumbered view of the Delaware Bay, she cannot afford to do so.

“People have said, ‘Well just walk away,’” she said. If she did that, Pew said, not only would it wreck her credit, but the house would sit vacant and rotting, becoming a burden to the township and her neighbors. “That’s not right. It’s just not in me to do something like that.”

Less than a month before Hurricane Sandy struck, the degradation in Money Island was clear. Houses stood precariously on pilings over the water at low tide, septic systems were seen sitting half in the water, and the tiny bridge connecting a marshy island to the mainland was growing more undermined by the daily tide. A Cumberland County Health Department memo sent in July noted that inspectors found septic tanks inundated daily by the tide.

Then Sandy struck. One waterfront house washed away completely. Other houses sagged further toward the water, one with waves crashing onto the wooden deck at high tide. The shoreline under other houses, which have had for-sale signs posted for more than a year, lost several more feet. At one house, which in early December was all but surrounded by water except for the ramp leading to the driveway, a bumper sticker was plastered to the front window: “No Retreat — Save the Bayshore Communities.”

The mindset of no retreat is popular in Downe Township, which in September made public a $40 million plan to improve water, sewer and beach infrastructure in Money Island, Gandy’s Beach and Fortescue. Prior to Sandy, Money Island had only 38 habitable homes and about six full-time residents; Gandy’s Beach, where property values are much higher than they are around the bend in Money Island, had about 75 habitable homes and fewer than 10 full-time residents.

Both communities were thrashed by Sandy — Gandy’s Beach suffering the most. Then, on Dec. 21, an unexpected storm with huge waves and tidal flooding damaged or destroyed infrastructure that had just been repaired after Sandy’s damage. The water came in a fourth time to Pew’s house, which is sitting vacant and damaged from Sandy’s flooding because she can’t get contractors to drive to Money Island.

Despite the storms, Downe Township Mayor Robert Campbell, who spearheaded the rehabilitation plan’s development, said the preliminary planning and feasibility studies are under way. The plan, he said, is critical to restoring the township’s ratable base, as well as preserving a way of life that has existed for more than 100 years — a way of life Campbell hopes will continue for another 100 years.

But how to pay for it is of concern to residents and advocates.

It’s impossible to determine just two months after the storm how many homes will return to being habitable and how many full-time residents will remain. The township authorized in early December borrowing $700,000 to pay for Sandy’s damage to public infrastructure, either fronting what FEMA will reimburse to the municipality or paying for costs that the agency won’t cover.

The town’s 2012 municipal budget was $377,000 and its total ratable base was $185 million, the second lowest in the state. Nearly 75 percent of the township’s land is set aside for conservation and is not taxed. The bayshore communities, including Money Island and Gandy’s Beach, hold slightly more than half of the township’s ratable base and the storm damage will cause tax bills throughout the town to increase significantly, Campbell said. But, the mayor said, the spending will be worth it in the long run. “If we can get these improvements, that would enhance their property values immensely.”

Communities along New Jersey’s southern Delaware Bayshore long have faced constant erosion and severe damage from storms; sea-level rise will only enhance that threat. Hurricane Gloria damaged the Cape May County village of Thompson’s Beach so severely that the state ultimately would not allow homeowners to rebuild and in the early 1990s bought the properties. The Fairfield Township community of Seabreeze was bought out by the state officially in 2010. The state invested $1.8 million into a seawall in Seabreeze that, shortly after completion in 2007, was destroyed by persistent storm waves.

But with the long-term future of places such as Money Island seemingly limited without tens of millions of dollars in infrastructure improvement, some residents and advocates now are asking whether the state should look into buying out residents and letting nature take over.

Managing and planning for the long-term effects of sea-level rise in coastal and low-lying communities is a conversation that simply is not happening in Cumberland County, said Matthew Blake, program manager of the Delaware Bayshore programs with the American Littoral Society. That’s leaving the economic future of many tiny bayshore communities in limbo, as developers, reinvestors and other economic interests lack any long-term game plan, Blake said.

“It’s not just that the town is losing a big piece of its identity and history. These houses serve as important ratables for Downe Township, and so they’re looking at their economic viability being threatened, with these communities potentially going away,” Blake said. “There’s nothing wrong with that thinking. It just needs to be guided by what the science is telling us.”

Campbell, who has no kind words for Blake, said that sea-level rise is not a concern for him and is not factored into any of the township’s plans.

“It’s political. I see the left-wing politicians are fearmongers, and they want to scare people with sea-level rise,” he said. “Besides, if it rises a foot in the next 100 years, will you and I really care? It’s not going to make me move. It’s a fear factor. They want to scare people.”

Money Island resident Tony Novak, who owns two marinas, a trailer he lives in and another shack on the water for aquaculture, is more concerned that local officials are not preparing for a future with higher water and more frequent storms.

“As a homeowner, I’d love to know we can do something about it. But I’ve concluded that’s not the case. Slow, strategic retreat is the inevitable result of sea-level rise,” Novak said. “We are underwater now a couple times a year, and over the next couple of years, we’ll be increasingly more inundated. Our septic tanks, our water systems, our roads, our bridges, are deteriorating at a scary rate, and I’m afraid this is a battle the humans aren’t going to win.”

Novak learned three days before Sandy struck that his bid to buy a dilapidated marina in Money Island out of bankruptcy had been approved. He felt that despite the likelihood that living in Money Island one day would no longer be possible, that there still was an economic future for boat owners and watermen. So far, he has invested about $350,000 into the four properties, all of which suffered extensive damage from Tropical Storm Irene and Hurricane Sandy.

“I’m trying to generate as much cash and enjoyment out of the marina as possible while we’re still able to do this,” he said.

But Novak is one of the residents wondering if the state will eventually buy out property owners. The problem, he said, is that property values are now so low in much of Money Island that however much the state offered likely would not cover any loans or liens, let alone pay for relocation if the house is a primary residence.

Campbell’s response to residents who wonder about buyouts is blunt: “Anyone who says that is a quitter,” he said.

“The state is not out there trying to buy anyone out. There are a few people in Money Island that have been trying to sell their houses for five, six years, just like anyone else in the state, and my personal opinion is that they are looking at this event as an opportunity to get out of their responsibilities.”

Late last month, Downe Township officials met with FEMA representatives to look at how to rebuild and whether there was grant money available to help property owners raise their houses. Campbell said he was told that if there was a group effort to raise houses to the flood level, the probability of receiving such grants was higher. So the township sent out letters to 125 property owners, asking if they had any interest.

Novak was one of many who responded, saying yes. “It seems like a good idea, but I’m aware there’s always a trade-off,” he said.

While Novak said he is pretty sure he will eventually relocate to Millville and run the marinas from there, Pew has little option. She has been renting a place from her daughter a few miles inland from Money Island. She struggles daily with insurance paperwork and trying to find a contractor who will come to her house for just an estimate. She fears that any grant money set aside after Sandy for buying out properties will go to more populated and wealthier areas of the state.

“To elevate a house costs anywhere between $30,000 and $50,000,” she said. “I don’t think that island is going to be there in 10 to 20 years. I don’t think putting $30,000 into the house is worth it.”

Contact Sarah Watson:

609-272-7216

SWatson@pressofac.com

Follow Sarah Watson on Twitter @acpresssarah

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