CAPE MAY — City officials are looking into whether the federal government will allow a more classic wrought-iron fence to replace the chain-link and barbed-wire one put around the Madison Avenue water tower after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.

Residents were livid in 2005 when fallout from the attacks resulted in a 10-foot fence going up around the tower.

The 80-year-old structure was recently painted inside and out. The cosmetic upgrades have revived the fence issue.

“I still am getting comments about it, and I kind of agree with them,” Deputy Mayor Jack Wichterman said. “Number one, do we have to have a fence there, and if we do, does it have to be that ugly?”

The city is researching those questions with the Department of Homeland Security and getting price quotes on a wrought-iron fence.

A city that prides itself — and bases its tourism economy — on its aesthetics was outraged that the Department of Homeland Security required the fence to begin with. It was mandated under the Public Heath, Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act of 2002 because the water tank and well house under it were considered “critical assets.” The federal government paid for the fence.

The water tower fence was one of several similar controversies to erupt from post-9/11 security measures. A barrage of criticism resulted in the 2012 removal of a fence designed to prevent terrorists from attacking the Great Egg Harbor Bay Bridge on the Garden State Parkway. One of the arguments was that people visit the shore to get away from places that need such fences.

A chain-link fence the Delaware River & Bay Authority put up along the entrance road to the Cape May-Lewes Ferry was criticized by officials in Lower Township, and the DRBA made a number of improvements to soften the aesthetic impact.

Most question whether a chain-link fence really secures anything and figure a fence may as well look good.

“That fence is not going to stop anybody who wants to do harm to us. A picket fence of wrought iron will be just as good,” Wichterman said.

The first step is to see whether the fence requirement is still in effect. Public Works Superintendent Bob Smith, in the meantime, will get quotes on an iron fence.

The city still has $247,000 left from a $2.1 million grant and loan package from the U.S. Department of Agriculture that was used to refurbish the Madison Avenue and Canning House Lane water towers.

City Manager Bruce MacLeod said the fence would probably be extra because the city hopes to use the $247,000 for final details on the project, including replacing sidewalks under the water tower, emergency generators for several wells and restoring a silo that holds lime for the desalination plant. Those projects are already pegged at about $450,000.

“If we replace the fence, it would have to come out of city bond ordinance,” MacLeod said.

A free fence that is ugly or a handsome fence that costs a few dollars is not an insurmountable issue. MacLeod’s concern is that removing the fence without approval from the Department of Homeland Security could jeopardize federal grants for other projects.

“We’ve initiated inquiries of whether we could take it down. We don’t want to lose out on other funding capabilities,” MacLeod said.

Mayor Ed Mahaney said there is probably enough time before the summer to “get a definitive answer” and make a decision.

Contact Richard Degener:

609-463-6711

Been working with the Press for about 27 years.