Waves roll under the house and salt spray hits the second floor, leaving frozen saltwater blanketing the windows facing the west.
It was just another winter day for Charles and Joan Weinstein in their Reeds Beach home overlooking the Delaware Bay.
“It’s like living in a Disney ride. I’ve had nights where I thought I was going to die,” Joan Weinstein said of her house on North Beach Avenue.
When it’s really bad, the disco ball hanging in the living room swings back and forth, and the water in the toilet bowl starts sloshing around.
“The summer storms don’t bother me because I can swim. When it’s this cold, it scares me,” she said.
As bad as it gets, each day at sunset, the Weinsteins get a reminder of why they have lived for 20 years in a house on piling at the water’s edge.
“Every day is another postcard sunset. No matter how long you’re here, you take pictures,” Charles Weinstein said.
The Weinsteins live on what some call the New Jersey shore’s West Coast, from Cape May Point up to Sea Breeze. It’s a poor stepchild to the ocean side. With sea levels rising — a natural process going on for 20,000 years — the oceanfront towns get millions of dollars to build jetties and seawalls, pump in sand and raise houses. It seems to mostly keep the ocean at bay.
There’s no such love for the West Coast, which may even have it worse because it is at the mercy of prevailing northwest winds.
“We don’t have the votes and the voices,” said Meghan Wren, who directs the Bayshore Center at Bivalve in Port Norris.
It’s also because the Delaware bayfront doesn’t have the ratables. The federal agency that funds beach replenishment projects, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, does a cost-benefit analysis for such projects. It can justify spending money to defend a huge ratable base on the ocean side, but not a much lower ratable base on the bayside.
This sometimes turns into a Catch-22 of sorts. The bay doesn’t get big beach projects with sand dunes, and recent flood map revisions by the Federal Emergency Management Agency put many bayfront neighborhoods in high hazard, or V-zones, where flood insurance is much higher and houses must be raised to secure mortgages. The ocean side has been able to use sand dunes to greatly reduce the number of V-zones.
But bay towns can be their own worst enemy. In 1999, the Army Corps offered Lower Township a $7.5 million sand project complete with an 80-foot-wide berm. The township has the most urbanized areas along the bayshore with neighborhoods such as North Cape May and Villas. There are ratables to defend.
The Army Corps pays 65 percent of such projects, with local and state funds making up the difference. The township turned the project down, arguing it could not afford the local share of $960,000.
Downe Township Mayor Robert Campbell watched Hurricane Sandy destroy 10 percent of his ratable base in areas such as Fortescue, Gandy’s Beach and Money Island. Then he watched $3 billion in Sandy aid go to homeowners on the ocean side.
“We’re like second-class citizens. We don’t get the money, but we do get the regulations,” Campbell said.
Pointing to Gandy’s Beach, where homes were destroyed, and a line of telephone poles still sitting eerily in the water, Campbell said he can’t even get state permits to restore the pre-Sandy shoreline.
“The oceanfront pumps in sand and reclaims land,” said Campbell. “Why can’t we do that on the bay?”
Campbell said the state would not even give him the emergency permits after Sandy for quick-fix work that barrier island towns received.
“The governor told them to do what they needed to do. Right after the storm, they had machines on the beach,” he said.
Campbell is also fighting a state proposal to buy out homeowners on the west side of Money Island, which would further erode his ratable base.
“There will be no retreat by Downe Township,” he declared.
It helps bayfront communities when the argument includes environmental concerns. Campbell is working with several environmental groups to rebuild beaches to help spawning horseshoe crabs, which in turn supply eggs that are a key food source for migrating shorebirds, including the federally threatened red knot.
“We’re going to build our future economy on horseshoe crabs and red knots,” he said.
Campbell is working with groups such as the American Littoral Society and Conserve Wildlife Foundation to get sand pumped in.
The Partnership for the Delaware Estuary already has helped build what is known as a “living shoreline” on Money Island. A shoreline created with ribbed mussels, sand, grasses, oysters and other natural materials can help delay the effects of sea-level rise, the group says. It can buffer homes from storms and save wetlands from becoming open water.
“Living shorelines can’t solve all the problems by themselves, but if you can do an ecological uplift and help the communities, that’s the Holy Grail,” said Sari Rothrock, a watershed planner with the partnership.
Jennifer Adkins, the partnership’s executive director, said tidal wetlands are the heart and soul of the estuary, and even putting off their demise has benefits.
“If eventually they’re going to drown, why bother? Because in the meantime they will produce millions of fish,” Adkins said.
Campbell has received FEMA money to install a new steel seawall at Gandy’s Beach. Engineering and design is being done to put in water and sewer, while Campbell is trying to get South Jersey Gas and Comcast to come in.
“Gandy’s Beach is going to survive. For these communities to survive, you have to have infrastructure. To have infrastructure, you have to have beaches,” he said.
Fortescue, touted as the “weakfish capital of the world,” also has a new berm that local schoolchildren planted with dune grass. Campbell is working with environmental groups to bring in sand to put in front of the berm.
An innovative proposal
It’s often up to local towns to do their own work. Middle Township has worked on Reeds Beach, Cooks Beach, Kimbles Beach and Pierces Point over the years, bringing in sand, repairing roads and installing bulkheads. The township also has partnered with environmental groups to bring in sand for horseshoe crabs.
It is now seeking the larger fix that ocean communities have enjoyed. The township applied for a $3.2 million state flood mitigation grant to construct a 6,000-foot-long beach and dune to protect both Reeds Beach and Pierces Point. The project would build the core of the dune by putting dredge spoils into geo-textile bags and covering them with clean sand, which also creates the perfect beach for horseshoe crabs.
Township Administrator Connie Mahon said it would provide habitat for endangered species, protect homes and find a beneficial use for dredge spoils shore towns are trying to get rid of.
“We have some innovative ideas, and I hope the state looks favorably on this. We have been fighting for sand for years. We’ve had no success from Cumberland County to Cape May County getting money for beaches, and the west winds are more problematic to us than they are on the ocean side,” Mahon said.
Like Campbell, Mahon said the lack of dunes has produced V-zones on the bay. The township is urging residents to construct bulkheads certified for a 100-year storm.
Joan Weinstein said “we’ll be tap dancing” if the grant is approved.
“Our house takes a lot of abuse. With that dune, it will no longer take that pounding,” she said.
Even areas with economies screaming for protection seem to get no love on the bayside. Wren noted that storms have damaged the Maurice River channel and threaten a fishing industry and several boatyards that do millions of dollars in business each year. Solutions have been proposed, but Wren said they never seem to get funded.
For centuries, farmers on the bay built massive dikes to keep the waters back and use the land for salt hay farming and other agricultural purposes. Most of them have been abandoned in recent years, and dead trees can be seen along the coast where salt is moving inland. Wren said a combination of dikes, bulkhead and living shorelines is the answer.
“Sandy was an eye-opener for a lot of people. Some say, ‘Why live here if it’s going to be taken over by the sea?’ Well, that could be the whole East Coast,” Wren said.
The bay, though, may be the canary in the coal mine. With low elevations, prevailing west winds and little money to forestall rising tides, it will be the front line for sea-level rise in the coming years.
Contact Richard Degener: