On the Delaware Bay, N.J. town struggles against sea rise

Residents of Downe Township on the shores of the Delaware Bay in New Jersey will bet you the sunsets illuminating marshes, migrating birds, and open blue water rival those of the wealthier ocean-side communities to the southeast.

To that point, the town bills itself as “A Nature Lover’s Paradise.”

But this paradise is crumbling. Rising seas, more frequent tidal flooding, and sinking land are taking their toll. And unlike on the ocean side, there’s no steady stream of federal dollars and sand to prop up this coastal treasure.

Many of the homes at the end of Money Island, in the northwestern part of the township, are vacant, rotting shacks hovering over Nantuxent Cove.  Gap-toothed decks hang precariously above the water, serving only as perches for squawking gulls.  A home bearing a bumper sticker reading “Save the Bayshore — No Retreat!” is collapsing, its giant concrete septic tank knocked askew by storms.

The State of New Jersey has offered to buy 28 of about 40 Money Island homes. To date, 21 homeowners have volunteered, leaving fears it will soon become yet another vanished bay-shore hamlet that couldn’t afford to fight rising seas. Communities such as Seabreeze, Moore’s Beach, and Thompson’s Beach have all disappeared, ruined by Hurricane Sandy, repeated other storms, and tidal flooding.

People who live in these communities don’t all agree with scientists who say they are on the front lines of climate change. Some insist it’s a temporary phenomenon that could be endured with enough effort and money.

But people on both sides of the climate debate are watching resentfully as politicians rush to help richer oceanfront communities grappling with similar issues.

“Nobody is talking about buying Stone Harbor out,” says Meghan Wren, whose family is one of a handful that live on Money Island all year. She hopes to stay but has doubts.

“I think it’s hard to deny the impact of sea-level rise,” Wren says. “The tide is coming higher than it used to.  I already time my comings and goings by the tide.  I had to wait the other day for hours in my car while the tide was high.”

On a recent day, Wren slipped the tip of her sandal under the shell of a horseshoe crab that had washed up on the beach and was struggling to right itself.  She flipped the creature so that it landed shell side up and could scurry into the safety of the sand. Wren repeated the process with dozens of crabs — the area is the largest breeding ground in the world for the creatures — to save them from predatory birds.

The Department of Environmental Protection began buying sinking properties in 2014 after it released a study on Money Island and nearby Gandy’s Beach, also in Downe Township.  The study found “numerous homes” with compromised septic tanks, some of which were underwater at high tide, putting a $23 million annual shellfish harvesting industry at risk.  Residents and township officials say that the testing was flawed and that Downe’s own testing showed no such pollution.

The Threat of Sea-Level Rise on the Delaware Bay

Many communities on the Delaware Bay in Cumberland County are under threat from higher seas, sinking land, and more frequent flooding.
The images below show the current shoreline around Downe Township, and what the shoreline could be with a sea-level rise of 1 foot. Some scientists estimate that New Jersey’s coast could see a 10-inch rise in sea level by 2030 and a 1.5-foot rise by 2050. Use the slider to compare the two images.
SOURCE: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Office for Coastal Management
Staff Graphic

Wren, a founder of the Bayshore Center, a nonprofit in nearby Bivalve, tries to downplay the politics over climate change.

“Regardless of what’s causing it, or who, I don’t want to be political, but pragmatic. The fact is we’re going to have more storms and more frequent higher tides. It’s the unnamed storms that do the most damage.”

Tony Novak, operator of Money Island Marina, says he has multiple properties in the township, some of which were once dry and now are permanently waterlogged.

“We are at the epicenter of sea-level rise,” Novak says, “I’ve lost 40 or 50 yards right in front of my house.”

Novak used to run a blog about “the response to sea-level rise” in Downe that he says drew threats.  But, he, too, loves the area and wants to stay.

“We’re here for the long run,” Novak says.

Money Island Marina, Downe Township, N.J.

Gandy’s Beach

Just south of Money Island, another Downe community, Gandy’s Beach, is still thriving, and isn’t part of the state buyout. But evidence of rising waters is everywhere.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency replaced a steel bulkhead lost during 2012’s Hurricane  Sandy at Gandy’s Beach, an investment the area says was appreciated, but not nearly enough compared with what ocean-side communities got.

Sandy was literally a watershed moment along the bay shore in the scope of its destructiveness and the fears it generated over future storms. Some areas haven’t fully recovered. Subsequent storms made things worse.

Elsewhere on Gandy’s Beach, concrete retaining walls are fronted by broken chunks of asphalt and rocks known as rip rap to provide temporary defense against the bay.

Perry and Marie Ashman have lived at Gandy’s Beach since 1978.  Their nicely kept home sits atop stilts with the bay lapping at the edge.  They compare the sunsets to those at their second home in Florida. Marie also talks of full moons that turn the dark bay silver.

Still, Perry says there used to be 30 or 40 feet of beach in front of their home.  “But we lost it all to erosion,” he says.

“The rising sea level, the high tides,” says Marie. “We’ve seen so much land gone.”

Sandy Boland, a real estate agent, tries to be positive, but is a realist.

“The tide is high, and it stays high longer. And we don’t have a beach anymore,” Boland says. “But the kids love it here. It’s a great atmosphere. You get the eagles and the ospreys.”

Some vacant homes worry her, even though she says she still gets plenty of interest from potential buyers.

Mayor: Sea rise is `hogwash’

Downe Mayor Robert Campbell discovered the township on a Sunday drive 35 years ago, fell in love with it, and stayed.

Now, Campbell, also a GOP candidate for state Assembly, is fighting to keep Downe’s six communities — which also include Fortescue, Dividing Creek, Newport, and Dyer’s Cove — viable. Scientists, he says, just don’t get it.

“There is no sea-level rise, and it’s a bunch of hogwash,” Campbell says. “We seem to get the brunt of all the talk about sea-level rise … but I don’t hear about it in Margate,” he said of the ocean-side city.

“Why?  What’s the difference? I’ll tell you why: We’ve had no maintenance along the bay shore.”

Flooding has been around “forever,” he says.  The difference: The rich coastal towns get jetties, breakwaters, dunes, and beach replenishment.

With the state buyouts, he said, Downe can expect to see both its population and tax base shrink even more. He said the township has lost 58 homes to buyouts since Sandy.

Downe had 1,631 residents in 2000, according to the U.S. Census but just 1,493 in 2015, more than an 8 percent drop.

Campbell says about 87 percent of the township’s 54 square miles is tax exempt as public land, or protected by nonprofits such as the Nature Conservancy.  He’s backing a $15 million sewer treatment plant he says could get hundreds of homes off septic systems the state says are so vulnerable to flooding.

Robert Campbell, Downe Township mayor, stands on the porch of a vacant home on Money Island Tuesday, June 12, 2017. (Margo Reed / Staff Photographer)

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is studying whether to use dredge material to build a dune or berm at Gandy’s Beach or Fortescue, according to spokesman Steve Rochette. But that study includes looking ahead 50 years to see if the investment would be justified — and there’s no answer yet.  The Corps’ focus is still the more heavily populated ocean-side barrier islands and back bays, he said.

A few environmental groups are installing “living shorelines” in the area to help prevent erosion, according to Josh Moody of the Partnership for the Delaware Estuary. Living shorelines can be composed of native wetland plants, shellfish colonies, and bioengineered materials such as coconut fiber logs.

It’s unlikely Downe Township will see the kind of massive projects such as those that continually replenish oceanfront beaches and dunes. Joint federal and state beach and dune construction projects starting on Absecon Island, which includes Atlantic City, will cost $213 million.

State and federal officials say oceanfront projects make more sense considering the tourism tax dollars generated.  Buying bay-shore homes is cheaper, too. Median housing sale listings for Downe are in the range of $130,000, compared with Avalon’s $1.4 million.

Larry Hajna, a DEP spokesman, said state and federal officials were dealing with the reality of the situation.

“Along the ocean,  properties are worth so much on the open market that it makes more sense for them to elevate or take other steps to protect their houses,” Hajna said.

Paul Waterman, owner of Beaver Dam Boat Rentals in Newport, N.J., stands in his store Tuesday, June 12, 2017. (Margo Reed / Staff Photographer)

Paul Waterman, a Downe resident who owns Beaver Dam Boat Rentals at Oranokin Creek, is philosophical about the township’s situation. He likes to watch eagles from his porch overlooking Glades Wildlife Refuge.

Life in Downe has always been dictated by water, he said. “You need to accept that you’ll get your feet wet.”

“I see changes in the amounts of different species of wildlife that should or shouldn’t be here,” Waterman said. “The water is warmer and crab season is six weeks ahead. And we all know warm water feeds storms.”

Looking out over thousands of acres of wetland, he adds: “Mother Nature is talking, but it’s very subtle.”