Tony Novak strolls down Nantucket Road in the sweltering heat, as pieces of the Downe Township street erode and fall into the bay.
His dog Baxter trots ahead and investigates the remnants of a broken-down mobile home parked on a patch of grass with its contents spilling out.
“It’s been like that for a while,” said Novak, pointing to the unit, which sits next to an abandoned one-story, blue house perched on pilings. His nearby marina is now closed after averaging only one customer per day.
This is Money Island, a rural, flood-prone community along the Delaware Bay in Cumberland County where the state has been making offers to buy houses from residents under the Blue Acres program enacted after Hurricane Sandy.
Since 2016, the Department of Environmental Protection has purchased 26 properties, some already vacant, on the island, totaling more than $2.7 million, according to the agency.
Only a few holdouts remain, either unwilling or unable financially to leave. For some, the rustic, remote section of Downe Township, which sits slightly above sea level, is a quiet slice of paradise away from the bustling Jersey Shore.
And packing up isn’t easy.
“It was sort of love at first sight. ... Money Island was my escape and my place to be peaceful with my family in a place of beauty,” said Meghan Wren, who bought her house along Nantucket Creek in 1997.
Recently, she signed paperwork to enter discussions with the DEP. Whether she accepts an offer, she said, will depend on if the price allows her to both pay off her mortgage and purchase a new home.
It’s a tough decision, though, and one she feels is being forced on her.
Since Hurricane Sandy, the state gave out $194,700 to Money Island residents for elevations and other flood mitigation measures, according to Department of Community Affairs records. At the same time, it poured millions into managed retreat from the bay.
“It’s not feeling voluntary,” Wren said. “It’s feeling like you’re going to be in a difficult situation if you don’t take the buyout.”
The concept of retreat New Jersey is undertaking on Money Island may become a blueprint for other coastal communities as climate change presents more of a threat in the coming years, though it hasn’t reached wealthier shore towns.
In its study of flooding on New Jersey’s back bays, the Army Corps of Engineers dedicated an entire section to the strategy.
But the Blue Acres program is not without its flaws, says Andrew Lewis, author of the upcoming book “The Drowning of Money Island,” which presents an in-depth look at how sea level rise and buy-backs impacted the remote community. He grew up about 20 miles away in Hopewell Township.
Under the program, officials offer pre-Sandy values for homes that were occupied at the time of the storm. They purchase properties in clusters. Each time a homeowner uses a grant to repair or elevate a house, that amount is deducted from the offer price, he said.
Those who accepted buyouts early-on made out the best, Lewis said, while waiting for a higher price often usually had the opposite effect.
And as people abandon the community, Lewis said vandalism, littering and fire safety become issues around unmaintained homes before the state arrives to demolish them.
“For the people who stick around, it might not be the best situation,” Lewis said.
Mayor Bob Campbell says the buyouts also hurt the township’s tax base. According to the tax collector’s office, the township lost $144,300 since 2016 from the 26 properties bought by the state and turned into open space.
The small, year-round fishing community that once existed is largely gone, he said.
Over the past few years though, Campbell, Novak and others have drawn up a redevelopment plan for the mostly vacant, 54-acre Money Island.
It includes grand ideas of a university/education research center and an upgraded aquaculture and commercial docking facility for the $40 million oyster industry there and for environmental tourists. Rutgers University already has conducted research on living shorelines on Money Island.
On Thursday morning, dozens of commercial crabbers and oyster catchers trawled the waters.
The plan is in early stages, and there’s no funding yet for the projects, but the township is moving ahead with a $15 million wastewater treatment plant for neighboring Fortescue and Gandy’s Beach.
“I’m not trying to build a casino here or anything,” said Campbell. “I just want people to have a real bathroom and facilities and to be able to enjoy the nature.”