(Published in The Press of Atlantic City on Tuesday, Jan. 6, 2009.)
In an isolated corner of southwest New Jersey, a community is slowly dying.
Eighteen homes and a small beach line the Delaware Bay in Sea Breeze, Cumberland County. They’re surrounded by water, marshes and the sound of waves lapping against the land. People come here to crab, fish, hunt, paint the scenery or simply find solitude. It doesn’t appear on most maps. Sea Breeze is not the sort of place you stumble across accidentally.
New Jersey doesn’t usually let waterfront communities disappear; federal and state governments spend millions annually to protect Atlantic Coast beaches. But Sea Breeze is different.
A $1.7 million seawall constructed here by the state Department of Environmental Protection has failed less than two years after construction. The homes are open to floodwaters that top the seawall.
Neither the DEP nor the township is willing to pay for seawall repairs. Both say the costs far outweigh the benefits. DEP officials would prefer to buy out the homeowners.
“There may be an engineering solution to reducing the wave energies, but not at an affordable price,” said Dave Rosenblatt, administrator for the DEP’s Office of Engineering and Construction.
Sea Breeze’s homeowners say the seawall was doomed to fail from the beginning. The DEP and Fairfield chose a model typically used for rivers, not bays and oceans, said Richard Weggel, a professor of civil engineering at Drexel University and former chief of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Coastal Structures and Evaluation Branch.
“I suspect the reason it failed it was exposed to wave action,” said Weggel, who was hired by the homeowners. “Wave action is not the same as riverine currents.”
Weggel proposed two fixes: collapsing the wall and laying an “armored stone” revetment atop it, or developing salt marshes in front of the current wall. Local officials aren’t interested.
Some have questioned whether the wall was built properly, but Rosenblatt said the wall was built to specifications.
He acknowledged, however, that the seawall model is one usually used in environments with lower wave energy.
“We had a limited budget,” Rosenblatt said. “We had environmental restrictions placed upon us by (the DEP). We could not expand the footprint beyond what (the original wall) was on the bay bottom.”
When the DEP began the project jointly with Fairfield Township in late 2006, then-Mayor Craig Thomas was Sea Breeze’s champion. Thomas knew what Sea Breeze had been in its prime, drawing tourists with hotels, taverns and amusements along the waterfront, and he envisioned restoring the waterfront as a regional center of ecotourism.
But when Thomas’s political faction lost the township committee’s majority in January 2007, the committee chose not to pave the road behind the seawall, which would have cost less than $40,000 and was part of the DEP’s plans.
“Had they at the end of the project simply paved the road, they would’ve stopped the wash-away from the wall,” Thomas said. “That there basically sunk the project. The people who took over the Fairfield government were against the project from the beginning.”
Just up the beach from the seawall, the homes on Sea Breeze’s north end stand protected by a wood wall that has withstood the bay for decades. In the nearby bayside communities of Fortescue and Money Island, makeshift piles of concrete have withstood waves better than the DEP’s contraption of concrete blocks, geotextile fabric and revetment. The waves at Sea Breeze’s south end are stronger, but not as strong as those regularly knocked back by bulkheads and walls along the Atlantic Coast.
“You haven’t heard reports of any other communities losing a seawall,” said Joe Hepner, an Ocean City realtor who lives at Sea Breeze year-round. “Just here, where they did the work. And you can laugh, but if I hit the lottery, this argument would be over.”
Eight of Sea Breeze’s 19 homeowners have contacted the DEP about buyouts. Four said they did so because they felt they had no choice, now that government was effectively abandoning them.
“No one wants to take responsibility for their project,” said Bill Pace, head of Sea Breeze’s homeowners association. “(DEP officials) just want to own it.”
Some believe the seawall should never have been constructed because sea level rise of one foot per century will continue to increase shore erosion. Instead, Sea Breeze should be allowed to continually “return to nature,” these critics argue. The bayside communities of Thompsons and Moores Beach in Maurice River Township faded similarly in the 1990s, with buyouts for many homeowners. Matt Blake of the American Littoral Society called Sea Breeze a “Man against Nature stand.”
“Now it’s a disaster,” Blake said. “We got away from good sense. We gave in to emotion politics. Now we’re paying for it. They need to make a call on whether the interests of a few private landowners outweigh the needs of a wildlife population with global importance.”
Daria Nikitina, a West Chester University geology professor studying marsh erosion at Sea Breeze, drew a similar conclusion about the seawall.
“This coastline is moving backwards,” Nikitina said. “It’s impossible to stop with any engineering design. It is going to fail.”
The project appeared dormant until State Sen. Stephen M. Sweeney, D-Salem, Gloucester, Cumberland, took office in 2002. After Thomas gained his support, Sweeney successfully secured state money for the project over the DEP’s objections.
Now, Sweeney sees Sea Breeze as a lost cause.
“It comes down to economics,” he said.
Fairfield Mayor Marion Kennedy Jr. says the township can’t afford to fix the seawall. Kennedy and township committee members rejected homeowners’ proposal that the township use Sea Breeze homeowners’ $40,000 in annual taxes to maintain the road and seawall.
Without their support, there’s little chance of more shore protection funds.
Rosenblatt said beach protection gets high priority because of the tourism industry there. In areas such as Fairfield, there would need to be local support and local funding.
That frustrates the homeowners, who granted Fairfield easements for the seawall under the premise that the township would maintain the road just inside it. That hasn’t happened; there’s simply a “Road Closed” sign.
To fix the wall themselves, the homeowners need permission from the township, which now owns the wall, Rosenblatt said.
Joe Hepner says he would sell his property for the right price.
If he doesn’t get a good sale offer, Hepner says, he’ll stay, even if the bay completely overruns the road and the houses around him. He can commute to his Ocean City job by boat, if necessary. He believes Sea Breeze is worth it.
“Once you let it go,” Hepner said, “once it’s gone, you’re never going to be able to replace it.”
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SIDEBAR: FACTS ABOUT RISING SEA LEVELS
– New Jersey has 1,000 square miles of land within 4 feet of sea level. The high water mark is usually about 2 feet above sea level, so most of this land would flood during high tides if the sea rises 2 feet during the next century — as expected.
– Tidal flooding will turn some low agricultural lands along the Delaware Bay to marsh.
– Along the low bay sides of Long Beach Island and other barrier islands, flooding will become more frequent and prompt many to elevate their yards with sand and gravel and set their homes on pilings.
– The ocean sides of most barrier islands are high enough to avoid direct inundation, but rising sea level increases beach erosion and the cost of beach restoration projects.
– Along New Jersey’s coast, sea level has risen 12 to 16 inches in the past century, mostly because the mid-Atlantic coast is sinking. Rising global temperatures contributed 2 to 5 inches to sea level in the past century, but they could raise the sea another 1 to 3 feet in the next century, in addition to the rise caused by other factors.
– Most beaches along the U.S. Atlantic and Gulf coasts are eroding a few feet per year; rising sea level is the primary reason. On New Jersey’s shore, sea level is rising 1 inch every 6 years. Both rising global temperatures and gradually sinking land contribute to the higher water levels — and that means more erosion.
Sources: New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
SIDEBAR: PLACES THAT AREN’T THERE ANYMORE — AND WHEN THEY DISAPPEARED
1896: A severe northeastern storm washes away several hundred feet of the drive on Beach Avenue in Cape May City.
1916: Longport loses a decade-long battle to protect the southern point; 10 blocks of the borough disappear.
1944: The ocean meets the bay in Wildwood, Longport, Atlantic City, Long Beach Island during the Great Atlantic Hurricane.
1950: A rogue wave washed away the town of South Cape May, a village that sat between Cape May and Cape May Point.
1950s: Tucker’s Island, disappears from the end of Long Beach Island.
1962: The Storm of “62 destroys 285 homes along a narrow strip of land north of Sea Isle City.
July 2003: The beach at Point Drive in Longport temporarily returns.