MIDDLE TOWNSHIP — A man digs clams along a muddy Delaware Bay beach on an unseasonably warm December morning. The beach is wide and muddy in spots, overlain with fingers of shallow water.
For the moment, the bay itself is about a football field away across the beach. But not for long. When high tide returns in a few hours, the water will likely lap the sand dunes and bulkheads at the edge of the beach. A variety of defenses protect the houses along this stretch of Delaware Avenue along the bayside beyond the Del Haven section of the township, some behind thick steel bulkheads and piled stone, others up on stilts allowing the water to pass underneath.
Here and in other bayside neighborhoods, some worry that future storms could destroy these homes, while huge projects protect beaches and properties on the ocean side of Cape May County.
“It’s pretty desperate. The high tides are really high,” resident Katherine Klotsas told Middle Township Committee at a recent meeting. “We need to know when the bayside is going to be replenished.”
She feels like officials at the local, state and federal level have little interest in the area she, her parents and grandparents have called home.
“The bay exists. We pay taxes. They’re very big taxes. And guess what? There are going to be no houses there,” she said at the Nov. 19 meeting. “We need help. We need help seriously.”
This week, Middle Township officials are set to evaluate bayfront communities, with a meeting planned Friday to discuss options, township Administrator Elizabeth Terenik said Monday. The township engineer and public works director plan to file applications for permits with the state Department of Environmental Protection for work along the bay.
“We can’t move any sand without approval from the DEP,” she said.
While there has been extensive development along Delaware Bay beaches in Lower Township, including in the communities of Villas and Town Bank, in Middle Township much of the bayside remains undeveloped, with small, discrete communities such as Sunset Beach, Pierce’s Point and Kimbles Beach found at the end of roads through the woods and protected marshland.
Along Beach Drive in Reeds Beach, one of the best known of these bayside communities, a group of neighbors on North Beach Drive said high tides are just part of life along the bay. According to Charles Weinstein, the silt and mud that still filled the street in front of his waterfront house this week came from the marsh to the east, not from the bay, driven up with water from a recent storm.
His wife, Joan Lunsford, said she has lived along the bay for years, and does not see anything new or surprising about the water lapping at the bulkhead in front of her home. She also sees millions of dollars spent each year on federal beach replenishment work on oceanside communities, with the sand quickly washed back off the beaches in northeast storms. She sees it as protecting tourism revenue, although according to officials with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, that is not the basis for evaluating potential projects.
“They have to put in the berm. Just do it,” adds her neighbor, Ann Argentine. She’s referring to an Army Corps of Engineers plan to build beaches along the bayfront.
The Army Corps has approval for two large-scale beach construction projects along the Delaware Bay, one in Villas, the other at Reeds Beach and Pierces Point. The latter would add an 80-foot sand berm. For much of this area, the beach is nonexistent between the bulkheads and the water.
According to Steve Rochette, a spokesman for the Philadelphia District of the Army Corps of Engineers, those multimillion-dollar beach projects along the ocean side are aimed at storm protection for infrastructure and properties.
There is a cost benefit analysis based on the value of the property to be protected, he said.
Along the bay side, there are a few new waterfront mansions mixed in with much older fishing shacks, but development is far less dense than in beachfront communities such as Stone Harbor or Ocean City. In Middle Township’s case there are usually just a few houses on either side of a road running parallel to the water.
For the bayside projects, Rochette said, a different evaluation was used. The proposed projects are aimed at restoring habitat for shorebirds and horseshoe crabs. Protecting the houses along the bay would be a bonus, not the purpose of the work.
While the needed approvals are in place for these projects, Rochette said, the money is not.
“We hoped they could be funded after Hurricane Sandy, but those projects were strictly for storm protection,” he said. There is also an experimental project being eyed, to reuse sand dredged to clear shipping lanes in the bay, which could eventually bring more sand to bayfront beaches in Delaware and New Jersey.
In the meantime, Ann Argentine and her husband, Lou, say they love where they live, even though the storms hit their neighborhood hard and often. Come spring, they will power wash the house and be ready for another season of waterfront views. Since moving in just after Sandy, they’ve added rocks and built up their bulkhead. Looking out from their back deck, hours before high tide, small, silty waves lap at the rocks. Next door, the house is raised above the beach, without a bulkhead, allowing the high tide to slip underneath.
There are some stretches of sandy beach between the houses. Neighbors say there was a line of dunes between the beach and the road, but that, too has washed away in recent storms.
Weinstein shows a video on his phone of one of those bay storms, with big waves slamming the bulkhead, splashing over to soak the house windows.
“This really gets beat up here in storms,” said Lou Argentine. “In the heavy storms, these places really rock and roll.”