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FEMA Won't Fund New Boardwalk for Ocean Grove

Shore towns are rebuilding on federal agency's dime, but Ocean Grove's privately owned beachfront leaves it in legal limbo.

ocean grove boardwalk
Credit: Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association

Residents of Ocean Grove may not see a boardwalk for some time. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has denied the town’s request for money to rebuild its beachfront badly damaged by Hurricane Sandy.

While neighboring Shore towns are likely to receive money from the federal government, Ocean Grove is in a unique situation. Founded as a Methodist retreat, its beachfront is owned and operated by the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association, a private nonprofit organization run by the United Methodist Church. Private nonprofits are not eligible for FEMA funds. While there are exceptions to that rule, FEMA officials did not believe that Ocean Grove made a valid case for such an exception.

“We’re extremely disappointed,” said Ralph del Campo, interim chief operating officer of the association. “There’s no difference between our beachfront and any other on the Jersey Shore. So why wouldn’t we be supported by FEMA funds, as compared to other towns.”

They plan on appealing FEMA’s decision, he said.

Ocean Grove lost half of its pier and a fishing club that stood on it, a signature building for the town, as well as a large portion of its boardwalk. Oddly, the boardwalk had such a strong foundation, that instead of being entirely washed away, the storm surge contorted the walkway, so that in some spots it undulated like a roller coaster. But even those sections could not be salvaged. The boardwalk repairs are estimated to cost about $2.5 million to $3 million, while the pier will likely cost another $750,000, Ocean Grove officials say.

Federal officials also denied the Camp Meeting Association's request for funding in the wake of Hurricane Irene. Local officials feared that FEMA would do the same with Hurricane Sandy.

Del Campo said the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association (OGCMA) operates its boardwalk like any other shore town, indicating that it provides a barrier to protect the town against storm surges and acts as an access route for emergency services. It also serves a recreational purpose, enabling visitors to access Ocean Grove beaches, as well as about half a dozen towns along the shore.

It's the recreational aspect of Ocean Grove’s boardwalk that may have been problematic for FEMA. While the agency will make exceptions to its rule not to give money to private nonprofits, that’s only if the funds are going to critical services, such as fire and emergency, electricity, water supply, telephone, sewer and wastewater treatment, and medical care.

Exemptions may also be granted for private nonprofits that provide essential, non-recreational government services, such as museums, educational facilities, zoos, custodial care, libraries, alcohol and drug rehabilitation centers, community centers, battered spouse programs, homeless shelters, low-income housing, food programs for the poor, senior-citizen centers, and daycare for special needs.

The Camp Meeting Association argues that Ocean Grove’s boardwalk is far more than a recreational facility. The boardwalk and adjacent dunes, which in some spots have retaining walls embedded in the sand, serve a critical role because they protect the town from the ocean, officials said.

“The boardwalk was destroyed because it held back the ocean,” del Campo said. “It did its job, but it suffered for it.”

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 during Hurricane Irene, in August 2011, because most of the damage was to an area of the boardwalk that is leased out to the Ocean Grove Fishing Club, a private organization.

“I am not surprised,” said Michael Bascom, chief financial officer for Neptune Township, the municipality in which Ocean Grove is located. “This is obviously a unique situation and FEMA's regulations are not written to allow consideration of such a scenario.”

If Neptune Township owned and operated the boardwalk in Ocean Grove, it could have applied for FEMA funds and would likely have received them. But because the Camp Meeting Association, a private nonprofit, owns and operates the boardwalk, it was always questionable whether federal officials would approve its application, Bascom explained.

That said, Bascom is optimistic Ocean Grove will receive funding in the end, but it may take intervention of state and federal officials. “I think that this is a step toward a resolution for OGCMA and remain confident that OGCMA, the governor's office, and our state and federal representatives will continue to pursue a solution to this issue,” he said.

In the meantime, the camp meeting association is continuing to rebuild its beachfront. Restoration remains a high priority, Bascom said. The Camp Meeting Association is applying for funding from the Small Business Association funds as well as Community Development Block Grants under HUD.

“The public safety, economic, and historic value of this boardwalk is important to our region,” he said.

Since the storm, local businesses have been concerned about the condition of the beachfront for the upcoming summer season. They generate most of their income for the year between Memorial and Labor Day, so they need a functioning waterfront.

“It could be a turn-off to people if there’s no boardwalk,” said Philip Franco, who owns the Carriage House, an eight-room B&B in Ocean Grove.

And whatever hurts Ocean Grove businesses hurts the state, particularly those in the hotel industry, which turns over 12 percent of its revenues in sales tax and room tax, Franco said.

That’s no small amount, he said. “I’m the smallest B&B in Ocean Grove, and I did six figures last year.”

FEMA officials declined to comment.

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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