Bumpy road to a boardwalk Ocean City's promenade nearly ready

Posted: March 17, 2008

OCEAN CITY, N.J. — On this Palm Sunday weekend, when many make their traditional preseason jaunt to the Jersey Shore, visitors will find this beach town's celebrated boardwalk nearly shipshape.

And that's a huge relief to merchants and officials in the popular Cape May County resort, where an aborted plan to re-deck a section of boardwalk with rain-forest hardwood had left a gap in the walkway.

"Our boardwalk is our boardwalk, whether it be pine or redwood or whatever species," said Michele Gillian, executive director of the Ocean City Chamber of Commerce. "It's as important a part of our town as our beaches and our bays. And when visitors come here, they expect it to be ready for the season."

Re-decking the block-long stretch near Ninth Street in time for tourist season hasn't been smooth sailing. The trouble began in January 2007, when local officials chose to re-deck the boardwalk section with a South American wood known as ipe.

They said they selected the rain-forest lumber - harvested from Brazil, Bolivia and other countries under a Forest Stewardship Council certification - for its durability.

The certification is an approval given to companies that meet stringent criteria for properly managing lumbering operations. The council, however, has come under fire for allegedly slacking off on its own rules and has recently agreed to tighten its regulations for certification on some 73 million acres of forest it oversees.

Last year, the agency issued about 6,200 certifications that materials had been harvested from "well-managed" forests.

The Louis J. Grasmick Lumber Co. of Baltimore was scheduled to deliver the wood in August, so crews from the city's Public Works Department could begin the re-decking after Labor Day.

By the end of January, Grasmick had delivered only about 3 percent of the order - not nearly enough to even start the project, according to City Council President Keith Hartsell.

Instead of shipping more, Grasmick provided the city with a litany of excuses - broken-down trucks, low river levels in the Amazon that were preventing the harvest, the selling of a shipment earmarked for Ocean City to a higher bidder from Europe - for not delivering it, Hartsell said.

The City Council voted unanimously in January to break its contract with the company. Local officials said they needed to find an alternative wood in order to complete the project before summer.

Last month, Grasmick sued, saying the city was in default on a $1.2 million contract to purchase 15,500 decking boards.

In its suit, Grasmick admits to delays, but insists Ocean City had been made aware that such hold-ups in delivery could occur and that the contract allows for them. Ocean City was expected to file a counterclaim in Superior Court.

The delays were welcome news to environmental groups that had waged a yearlong battle against Ocean City for choosing to buy the wood in the first place.

More than 50,000 protest e-mails flooded the city from around the world, and environmental groups routinely picketed City Hall.

The groups have contended that the use of ipe and other Amazonian hardwoods is linked to the destruction of the world's ecologically sensitive rain forests.

Attorney Joseph Kernen of Princeton, who is representing Grasmick, said the city "capitulated to pressure" from environmentalists in its decision in January to refuse further shipments from the lumber company.

The suit alleges Grasmick has already spent a "significant six-figure amount" to procure the wood from South American suppliers and custom cut it to the city's specifications.

City officials insist their refusal to accept any more wood from Grasmick, and the decision to re-deck the boardwalk using yellow pine, had nothing to do with the environmentalists' complaints.

"There is no question that timing was a most important consideration in this contract and to this project," said city Solicitor Gerald Corcoran. "It is completely unacceptable to the city that the wood was not delivered in a timely manner and therefore Grasmick is in breach of its contract with us."

Ocean City's merchants agree that timing is everything when it comes to the tourist season.

Workers have been putting down the yellow pine over the last six weeks and the job should be about 75 percent done by this weekend and complete by Memorial Day weekend.

"We were all concerned that it wouldn't be done in time," said Holly Cockerham, manager of Shriver's Salt Water Taffy.

"This is the first big weekend when people start coming down, opening up their houses, buying discount ride tickets for the boardwalk, shopping for Easter candy," Cockerham said. "We were ready to open, we wanted to make sure the rest of the town would be, too. And we are thrilled that it was."

Contact staff writer Jacqueline L. Urgo at 609-823-9629 or jurgo@phillynews.com.

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