Saturday, October 25, 2008

As Strathmere readies for storm, larger issues loom

By Jacqueline L. Urgo

Inquirer Staff Writer

STRATHMERE, N.J. - Less than a day before a heavy storm that forecasters said could cause beach erosion and flooding at the Jersey Shore this weekend, Jack Cooper and his neighbors in this tiny Cape May County coastal town said they were as ready as they could be.
Some in Strathmere contend that officials in Upper Township - the mainland municipality that governs them - have placed the community of 175 year-rounders in peril by not reacting more quickly to its need for major beach replenishment.

A band of residents has mounted an aggressive effort to secede from Upper Township. Another beach town, such as adjacent Sea Isle City, would "get" them better, they say.

But yesterday, Cooper and others had little time for such talk. They were busy stacking 50-pound sandbags on the perimeter of their multi-million-dollar properties and removing valuables from their lots as township officials scrambled to reinforce 1,000 feet of seawall with boulders the size of Mini Cooper cars.

Just weeks ago, Jack Cooper said, he and others who live on the Point, at the far north end of Strathmere, spent at least $600,000 of their own to install the three-foot-tall steel wall along their properties to block encroaching water from the ocean and Corson's Inlet.

Last weekend, in its first test, the seawall failed.

A relatively mild storm blew 25 m.p.h. winds off the ocean, pulling water onto the land, flooding properties and nearby streets. The wave action also scoured sand from beneath the new wall.

"That really scared us, because that wasn't that big of a storm," Cooper said. "We were left to wonder what would happen if we got the type of severe nor'easter we usually get during the winter."

Cooper and others hope that the wall will hold until a planned $3 million beach replenishment project gets underway this winter.

Heavy rain, strong winds and seven-foot waves - double normal size - are predicted to begin around noon today and continue all day. Though not a nor'easter, the storm may test beach communities such as Strathmere, meteorologist Jim Eberwine of the National Weather Service in Mount Holly said this week.

On Tuesday, Upper Township officials passed an emergency appropriation of at least $300,000 to fortify the seawall with boulders and the rock-filled mesh boxes known as gabion. Work began Thursday and was expected to continue tomorrow.

"We're doing everything we can to protect the property along this part of Strathmere," said Mayor Richard Palombo. "We feel a responsibility to the homeowners to do that."

"Strathmere is in crisis mode," said Stewart Farrell, director of the Coastal Research Center at the Richard Stockton State College of New Jersey in Pomona. "This seems to be the best solution at the moment."

Erosion has increased over 18 months, some theorize, because sand from Ocean City's recent beach replenishment has washed into Corson's Inlet, creating a sandbar on the Strathmere side. That has shifted the currents and caused more scouring of the beachfront, Farrell said. At some points, the beach has disappeared.

"It's been clear for a long time what's been happening in that spot, but the township has failed to react to it," said George Welker, 56, president of Citizens for Strathmere and Whale Beach. Whale Beach is a section of Strathmere.

The grassroots group wants Strathmere to de-annex from Upper Township and create its own municipality or join Sea Isle City, he said. The group has filed suit in Cape May County Superior Court and the township has held hearings on the issue.

Strathmere is not the first Cape May County community to mount a secession effort. In the last five years, Avalon Manor lost a suit it filed against Middle Township to join Avalon Borough, and property owners in an area known as Diamond Beach, south of Wildwood Crest, wanted to secede from Lower Township until they reached an agreement concerning municipal services.

New Jersey courts generally frown on such suits, especially when they involve affluent communities that say they are being treated like tax cash cows.

But Welker said his group can prove that Upper Township has routinely neglected Strathmere. The current crisis is proof that the township has been remiss in responding to Strathmere's needs, he said.

As recently as five years ago, Welker said, up to a quarter-mile of meadows with cedar trees, dunes and a wide beach separated homes on the Point from Corson's Inlet. That area, Corson's Inlet State Park, is now virtually under water.

Welker, a lifelong resident of Strathmere, said members of his group - which includes most of Strathmere's 126 registered voters - fear for their entire town.

The community, two blocks wide and eight blocks long, sits on a peninsula surrounded by the ocean, the inlet and the bay.

Until recently, the town - founded in the early 1900s - was a quirky enclave of beach cottages, with little commercial enterprise, one church, a seasonal trailer park, and three restaurants.

As nearby towns became heavily populated summer resorts with expensive real estate and myriad attractions, a lack of sewer and water lines deterred development in Strathmere.

But 10 years ago, after the New Jersey-American Water Co. agreed to run a water line into the town, property values skyrocketed. The ramshackle cottages were torn down and replaced by multi-million-dollar homes. Many of the town's current 460 dwellings were built in the past decade.

"While our home values have tripled and quadrupled and our property taxes have increased, the services and attention we receive from Upper Township have not," Welker said.

"But it's not a money issue," he said. "It's that over and over, Upper has responded to problems in Strathmere on an emergency basis when [they] should be addressed as a routine part" of maintaining a beach community.

Palombo, the mayor, said creating a beach renourishment plan and obtaining funding is not as simple as residents may think. The state considers beach deterioration at the inlet area it owns to be a natural part of what occurs in an active waterway, he said.

The difference in their philosophies "has been our biggest issue in trying to figure out what to do," he said.

If the state provides 60 percent of the funding for the impending beach replenishment project, as it has promised, Upper Township will pay the rest, Palombo said.

"I think it's unfair for this group to try and use this crisis as foundation for their secession effort," the mayor said.

Township officials say losing Strathmere's ratables could increase property taxes for residents elsewhere in the municipality by as much as 20 percent.

No comments: