Another N.J. hamlet on the Delaware Bayshore is razed, a victim of sea rise

Soon almost all of Mike Nelson’s hometown of Bay Point, N.J. will be gone.

It will become another ghost town along the state’s Delaware Bayshore.

The state is demolishing 20 homes in Bay Point, a hamlet within Lawrence Township, Cumberland County.  The razing is part of the Blue Acres program earmarked to buy out properties in flood-prone areas.

Nelson refused to sell.  He and one other neighbor will own the only remaining two homes when demolition is complete by March.

“My family came here in 1939,” said Nelson, 61. “I have been all over and haven’t found another place I’d rather live.”

Nelson’s home, where he lives with his wife, Kate, sits on the bay with sweeping vistas of open water, marshland, and wildlife. He used to own the local marina, which was bought and torn down by the state. He still crabs and fishes. He rebuilt this home after his old one was destroyed by Hurricane Sandy in 2012.  He believes the water will reclaim his new home within a generation.

The voluntary buyout of Bay Point, which has its roots in Hurricane Sandy, is emblematic of issues spawned by ever more powerful storms combined with regular flooding that scientists attribute to climate change and sea level rise.

Nelson said he now sees tides that run 5 to 10 feet higher than decades ago. Those tides cause more and more erosion as chunks of Bay Point tumble into the water.

The Threat of Sea-Level Rise on the Delaware Bay

The maps below show the current Delaware Bay shoreline in Cumberland County, and what it could be with a sea-level rise of 1 foot. Some scientists estimate New Jersey’s coast could see a 10-inch rise by 2030 and a 1.5-foot rise by 2050.

SOURCE: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Office for Coastal Management
Staff Graphic

A few miles to the north, the hamlet of Sea Breeze was demolished in 2010.  A mile south, homes on Money Island will likely be razed next year.

The stretch between the three hamlets will return to their historic function, unbroken wetlands that provide a home for thousands of birds, horseshoe crabs and other wildlife.

Usually bypassed by beachgoers headed to the oceanfront, the bayshore is New Jersey’s lesser known shoreline, marked by vast marshlands, farms, beaches, marinas and fishing docks.

Demolition of Bay Point began in late November. In addition to the 20 homes, 14 other lots containing homes previously destroyed by flooding or old docks and pilings for fishing and boating, also are being cleared.

The state spent about $4 million from the Blue Acres fund to buy the homes in the three hamlets and has set aside another $1.2 million for tearing them down and hauling away the remains.

In all, New Jersey had $375 million in mostly federal funding for Blue Acres buyouts.  To date, the state has bought 618 properties out of 893 declared eligible.

Larry Hajna, a spokesman for the DEP, says the buyouts are part of a strategy to help communities become more resilient.

The bayshore is faced with sea rise due to melting glaciers and ice caps, while development and groundwater removal make land sink. Another problem: “nuisance” flooding during routine rains or high tides.

“A lot of these bay communities are very exposed and on very narrow barrier islands,” Hajna said.  “Behind them are vast marshlands and tidal creeks. They are just very prone to flooding from storm surges from both the front end and back end.”

The communities typically have one road in and one road out, making rescues difficult.

While the oceanfront’s economy justifies building dunes and sea walls, on the bayshore side it’s more cost effective to just purchase the homes. The state paid an average of $125,000 each for Bay Point’s properties, including vacant lots.  A single oceanfront home can be worth millions.

Elmer “Skip” Bowman, Deputy Mayor of Lawrence Township, said demolishing the homes means losing $5 million in taxable property, a considerable sum in a township of about 3,300.

Closing Nelson’s marina also hurt local businesses, including a restaurant and convenience store fishermen used to visit, he said.

Bowman’s greatest regret is less tangible. The retired farmer, 78, said hundreds of people used to flock to Bay Point to birdwatch, fish or stroll the beach.

“It was a thriving little community,” Bowman says. “We’re losing all these hamlets.  It’s a shame. Someday you’ll only read about them in the history books.”