After Sandy, a town on the Delaware Bay fights to survive

ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Tony Novak , owner of the Money Island marina, still plans to repair his storm-battered trailer to find the peace he came looking for.
ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Tony Novak , owner of the Money Island marina, still plans to repair his storm-battered trailer to find the peace he came looking for.
Posted: March 13, 2014

DOWNE TOWNSHIP, N.J. - The phone in the shed on Money Island often rings before the sun rises, before the blackbirds sing and the watermen and their oyster boats grumble to life with diesel fuel and coffee.

The callers, mostly recreational fishermen and boaters, are looking for Bruce Muenker, who manages a marina where the Nantuxent Creek meets the Delaware Bay. They hope he'll peek out of his trailer or glance outside the shed that serves fresh bait and gourmet coffee. They seek flat water and sunny skies - and Muenker, ever the optimist, is pretty good at luring them in, no matter what he sees.

"They all say, 'What's it look like down there?' " Muenker said on a recent morning at the marina. "I say, 'It looks great, come on down.' "

But optimism rises and falls like the tides on Money Island and the other small, rural communities separated by the salt marshes and creeks that make up this Cumberland County municipality of mostly protected open space and people with callused hands.

It's a Shore area just an hour south of Philadelphia, but quite unlike Avalon, Ocean City or other oceanside towns. More like a Southern delta stretching on forever.

And depending on whom you ask, some waterfront properties here could crumble into the bay because of rising seas or the next big storm, or be demolished by whatever state or federal agency is willing to buy out the owners, or slowly sag on their thin pilings, forgotten by owners who've left "For Sale" signs fading in the sand.

Last month, a Cumberland County committee unveiled a Bayshore Recovery Plan, aiming to attract the state's attention for the next round of Superstorm Sandy funding. The county, according to Gov. Chris Christie's office, was not among the nine worst-affected counties in the state by the historic 2012 storm when funding was allocated.

Cumberland County already received or will receive tens of millions of dollars in aid from state and federal agencies, the governor's office said, including $9.4 million to buy homes across the marsh from Money Island in the Bay Point section of Lawrence Township.

But Downe Township Mayor Bob Campbell said that Downe lost about 30 homes to Sandy and that access to storm-recovery money is just one of the problems the community faces.

The miles of wide-open marshes that are home to bald eagles, mink and ospreys are owned by various nonprofits that don't pay taxes to the township. The state has compensated Downe for all of its large swaths of open space with payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) funding, but that program has been cut back, Campbell said.

Downe has few businesses and few venues to promote its vast, undeveloped landscape to tourists, so homeowners and the PILOT payments make up nearly all of the tax base.

"If we don't embellish and rebuild the bayfront communities, we don't know what we're going to do," Campbell said. "People down here can't pay $10,000 in taxes."

If homeowners leave, some officials and residents fear, Downe Township itself could disappear, its borders dissolved into neighboring communities and eventually forgotten.

"I predicted, back as far as before the year 2000, that Downe Township could not survive financially," said Tony Novak, a Bala Cynwyd native who owns the marina and several other properties on Money Island.

'No Retreat' strategy

Campbell says there's no time for negativity, or talk of abandoning the bayfront and hundreds of years of history along with it.

"We have to save the beach, we have to save the homes, and we have to save the infrastructure," Campbell said. "The survival of the beach communities here is so important to this part of the state."

He supports the Delaware Bay slogan "No Retreat: Save the Bayshore Communities," seen on stickers across pickup-truck windows, fence posts and weathered, old boats that haven't felt a wave in years.

A 2013 Environmental Protection Agency study about climate change in Downe Township said "No Retreat" was the most popular of three strategic options for the community.

The others: retreat to higher ground, or relocate people who live in the more-vulnerable parts of town - like Money Island and Gandy's Beach - to Fortescue, the largest of the township's hamlets.

Campbell would like state and federal agencies to help residents stay to shore up the infrastructure instead of cutting them a check to leave, as is being proposed in Bay Point. It already happened several years ago in Sea Breeze, Fairfield Township, where the community of small bayfront shacks was demolished, the land returned to the terrapins and horseshoe crabs.

"I think their brains have been poisoned," Campbell said of people willing to take buyouts. "I'm the eternal optimist."

Just down the road from the Money Island marina, Meghan Wren's home sits along the Nantuxent Creek, safer from the elements than those on pilings along the bay.

Wren, executive director of the Bayshore Center, a nearby Delaware Bay education center, said there's a bit of "hubris" in the "No Retreat" slogan, but she envisions a Downe where people can still live, work and visit, an economy tied to the environment.

"I'm feeling good about the potential," she said. "You can access nature here in a way that's not typical of anywhere else in New Jersey."

Ecotourism a solution?

Campbell and Novak both say that the biggest obstacle to a functioning Downe Township is strict environmental and building regulations that could prevent Downe from becoming a destination for ecotourism, a place where people can come birding, crabbing or kayaking and find a place to lay their heads, go to the bathroom or pitch a tent.

The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection is on board with the ecotourism vision, Campbell said, but no one is relaxing any regulations to make it happen.

"These agencies have almost regulated us into extinction," he said. "We don't want to expand the footprint. We're not looking to put up casinos in the meadows."

Campbell said there would need to be major investments in parking, bridge maintenance, public bathrooms and sewer lines to accommodate even small numbers of tourists. But the process moves at a glacial pace: One man, he said, has been trying to open a campground in Fortescue for years.

Novak, who splits his time between Money Island and Bala Cynwyd, said he was cited for using old oyster shells as filler in the yard of his bayfront trailer. He still plans to repair his storm-battered trailer to find the peace and quiet he came looking for 20 years ago, and prays that the phone doesn't stop ringing at his marina.

Novak, an accountant, runs the website and considers himself to be a realist, not a pessimist.

"I lost the deck, but I got a permit to rebuild it," he said, his feet crunching on the shells. "I just loved sitting on the deck. It's nothing much, but it was a great place for me to get work done. Look at this view."

On Twitter: @JasonNark

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