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Ocean Grove Anxiously Awaits FEMA Call

Caren Chesler | January 14, 2013

While much of the Jersey Shore focuses on rebuilding boardwalks and beachfronts, Ocean Grove's unique status as a private nonprofit may delay or disallow funding.

On a recent mild Saturday afternoon in January, joggers were out in force in Ocean Grove, a seaside town sandwiched between Asbury Park and Bradley Beach. Some ran on the sand. Others ran on the roadway. Very few ran on the boardwalk because much of it was destroyed by Hurricane Sandy. In the greenway that runs alongside the boardwalk, volunteers from church organizations carried piles of debris from one spot to another, separating the wood into different-sized piles, the way someone waiting for an important call might move items around on a desk.

Indeed, Ocean Grove officials are waiting for an important call from federal officials, on whether they will receive funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help restore their beachfront.

As towns along the Jersey Shore line up for FEMA money in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, Ocean Grove may find itself left out. Founded as a Methodist retreat, it is still owned and operated by the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association, a nonprofit organization run by the United Methodist Church. Because private nonprofits are ineligible for FEMA funds, the town may not get any federal money to rebuild its boardwalk.

Ocean Grove lost half of its pier and a fishing club that stood on it, a signature building for the town. What was left of its boardwalk undulated like a roller coaster. The boardwalk repairs are estimated at $2.5 million, while the pier will likely cost another $500,000 to $750,000, Ocean Grove officials say. Federal authorities denied the Camp Meeting Association's request for funding in the wake of Hurricane Irene, and local officials fear FEMA will do the same with Hurricane Sandy.

"Asbury got money for Irene. And I would say they will receive for money for Sandy. In fact, virtually every town along the oceanfront has gotten money from FEMA," said Michael Bascom, chief financial officer for Neptune Township, the municipality in which Ocean Grove is located.

If Neptune Township owned and operated the boardwalk in Ocean Grove, Neptune could have applied for FEMA funds and would likely have received them, said Bascom, who is also director of Neptune’s Office of Emergency Management. But because the Camp Meeting Association, a private nonprofit, owns and operates the boardwalk, it’s questionable whether federal officials will come through with funding.

"Neptune absolutely would have gotten money if it had applied. It’s disturbing. FEMA needs to recognize that while the Camp Meeting Association may own and operate the boardwalk, it's still a beachfront, like in any other municipality," Bascom said.

Given that Ocean Grove is Neptune’s only beachfront, Neptune officials are working with the camp meeting association to press FEMA to recognize that its beachfront and boardwalk should receive the same type of assistance as any other, Bascom said.

Neighboring towns are already working toward rebuilding their boardwalks. Last month, Belmar awarded a $6.6 million contract to a company to restore its 1.3-mile boardwalk. Avon budgeted $2.5 million and will begin work shortly.

Spring Lake plans to rebuild the two miles of boardwalk that lost timber decking, a wood alternative, and has made an emergency appropriation of $4 million for some if not all of the repairs. Asbury Park estimates that rebuilding and recovery will cost $12 million. All four towns expect FEMA to reimburse them for part of the tab, and most expect to have their boardwalks up and running by summer.

Qualifying for FEMA Assistance

Robin E. Smith, in FEMA's Media Relations, says the agency's public assistance grants may be awarded to state, local, and tribal governments. Private nonprofits, however, are ineligible, unless they provide critical services such as fire and emergency, electricity, water, phone, sewer and wastewater treatment, and direct medical care.

Private nonprofits that deliver essential, "government" services to the general public may also be considered. These include museums, educational institutions, zoos, custodial care facilities, libraries, alcohol and drug rehabilitation centers, battered spouse programs, homeless shelters, low-income housing, food programs for the needy, senior citizen centers, and daycare for special needs.

“FEMA uses strict criteria when weighing whether a private nonprofit receives money, such as whether the project is protective of life and limb. Is it only for private groups and the general public can’t use it? All of those things, and more, come into play," Smith said.

Those criteria are spelled out in the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act of 1988, otherwise known as Stafford Act. It authorizes the president to issue major disaster or emergency declarations in response to catastrophes in the United States that overwhelm state and local governments.

The Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association plans to argue that the boardwalk and dunes, which in some spots have retaining walls embedded in the sand, serve a critical role because they protect the town from the ocean.

“Imagine if we didn’t have that. The ocean would have caused a lot more damage to the town than it did,” said Ralph del Campo, interim chief operating officer of the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association.

He said that Ocean Grove received FEMA funds in the wake of the 1992 nor’easter, which did more damage to the boardwalk than Hurricane Sandy. He said it did not receive FEMA money for damage incurred in Hurricane Irene, in August 2011, because most of the destruction was to an area of the boardwalk that is leased to the Ocean Grove Fishing Club, a private organization.

While Ocean Grove officials have not been denied funding yet, some retailers in town are already writing letters to FEMA officials, saying their businesses, as well as the property values of private homes, will be jeopardized if the boardwalk is not finished by the summer.

“Ocean Grove is a vital town that relies on the people that summer here as well as those who make the trip for the day. Without a boardwalk, which is one of the biggest draws, our town is put at risk for financial ruin,” Norma Tolliver, owner of the Main Avenue Galleria, wrote in a letter to the agency.

J. Randy Bishop, a Neptune township committee member and owner of The Melrose, an inn in Ocean Grove, says he’s spoken to some people at FEMA and emphasized just how important it is to have a boardwalk, not just to Ocean Grove or Neptune, but to this part of the Jersey shore. Before the storm, it was possible to walk all the way from Spring Lake to Asbury Park.

“Having that link means a tremendous amount to the business community and therefore to the economy of the region,” Bishop said.

Worried About More Than FEMA

Civic organizations in town, from the chamber of commerce to the homeowners association, aren’t just concerned with FEMA’s actions. They say the camp meeting association hasn’t been communicative about its plans for the boardwalk and the status of its FEMA application. They also don’t understand why neighboring towns are rushing to get their boardwalks completed by the summer, while the association estimates that even if it does get FEMA funds, the boardwalk will not be done until the summer of 2014.

“More than anything, I think we need the camp meeting hierarchy to communicate better with the people who live in the town. I mean they are our landlord,” said Ann Horan, president of the Ocean Grove Homeowners Association. “Although they’re not a municipality, they need to behave like one, to their constituents. We have a vested interest in this place.”

Some fear the camp meeting association will be penalized for what two New Jersey courts ruled last year to be discriminatory behavior toward a gay couple who wanted to have their civil union ceremony under a pavilion on Ocean Grove’s boardwalk.

In 2007, Harriet Bernstein and Luisa Paster applied to the association to use its pavilion. The Methodist organization denied their request, even though it had allowed the pavilion to be used for weddings and other secular functions. The two filed a complaint with the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights, and in January 2012 an administrative law judge ruled that their civil rights were violated.

The Methodist organization appealed the ruling, and in October the Civil Rights Division’s director reaffirmed the administrative judge’s ruling. The case resulted in the association losing its property tax exemption for the pavilion that it had enjoyed since 1989 under the state’s Green Acres Program, because state officials ruled the structure no longer met the requirements as a place that is open to all members of the public, The association was able to get the exemption reinstated because religious services are held at the pavilion.

“I think they may find themselves between a rock and a hard place,” Horan said.

When asked whether they thought the recent court rulings might hurt their chances of obtaining funds, Del Campo of the camp meeting association said, “Absolutely not.”

He said the boardwalk, beach, and most of the fishing pier are entirely open to the public, adding, “We are a diverse community, and that’s great. We embrace everyone in the community.”

FEMA officials were a little more cryptic, saying only that, “FEMA will consider a broad spectrum of information that helps us understand whether any private nonprofit organization will qualify under the Stafford Act criteria for private nonprofit organizations.”

Caren Chesler is a freelance writer based in Ocean Grove, whose work has appeared in various general-interest and business publications, including The New York Times. She also served as a statehouse reporter for the Asbury Park Press.

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