Bay Point Buyout of Storm-Ravaged Homes: A Realistic Response to Rising Waters?

Residential community devastated by Sandy to be turned into open-space habitat for Delaware Bay wildlife

baypoint sandy
Depending on your point of view, New Jersey’s offer to buy out owners of 33 homes and additional vacant lots in the remote Cumberland County community of Bay Point is either a rational move to protect local people from inevitable sea-level rise; a reckless decision that will deprive its township of much-needed tax revenue, or a commendable measure to protect more habitat for Delaware Bay wildlife.

State and federal governments are providing $9.4 million to buy the properties. The plan is to convert 41 of the 46 acres on Bay Point peninsula to open space that will act as a buffer against coastal flooding while creating more habitat for wildlife, especially migratory birds.

Property owners are being offered the buyouts after being devastated by Sandy, and after chronic flooding of the only access road through surrounding wetlands. Those who accept the state’s terms would see their homes – only two of which are occupied year-round — demolished. Eight homes were destroyed by Sandy while some others remain uninhabitable.

The buyout is voluntary, and no purchases have yet been agreed upon since the Dec. 19 announcement, but the vast majority of property owners are in favor of it because they recognize the likelihood of future severe storms and rising seas, said Larry Hajna, a spokesman for the Department of Environmental Protection.

“It’s not going to be possible to keep fighting against Mother Nature in that particular area,” Hajna said.

That’s apparently been accepted by all home owners and nearly all of those who own land at Bay Point, who have applied for a buyout at pre-Sandy prices, according to Erwin Sheppard, mayor of the surrounding Lawrence Township.

The owners are motivated in part by the $30,000-$80,000 cost of elevating their houses by about 5 feet to the new level of 13 feet that’s required to qualify for federal flood insurance, Sheppard said.

In addition, many owners are faced with a bill of around $8,000 for repairs to septic systems damaged by Sandy, as well as other storm-related repairs. Given the high costs and the threat of future storms and flooding, people figure it’s time to take the buyout, Sheppard said.

“A lot of the people are saying that this is their best option,” he said.

Even before Sandy, there had been significant beach erosion in Bay Point over the last 50 years, suggesting that the community isn’t viable in the long term.

“They used to have 200 feet of sand in front of their houses,” Sheppard said. “For a lot of them, the bay is now right up to their house.”

He estimated that the average pre-Sandy value of a Bay Point home, including its lot, was $275,000.

Former Mayor Elmer “Skip” Bowman said the buyout is an opportunity to move people out of harm’s way while boosting opportunities for ecotourism such as fishing and birding.

“Flooding is not something new down here,” Bowman said in a statement. “We’re looking long-range. Is this going to happen again? Yes. We feel for the people down there. They need an option.”

According to the latest Rutgers University projections, sea levels along the New Jersey coast – both ocean- and bay front — are expected to rise by 17 inches by 2050 and 44 inches by the end of the century as ocean volumes rise in response to melting polar ice caps in the warmer global climate. Storm surges could be higher, as shown by Sandy, which produced a 6-foot surge in the back bays, the DEP said.

Across Cumberland County, residents are dealing with seas that are increasingly inundating low-lying coastal areas, flooding roads and previously fertile land, infiltrating septic systems, and even killing trees that can’t live in salt water.

The buyout will use $4.4 million in funds from Green Acres, a state DEP bond-funded program, and $3 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In addition, state and federal governments will each provide about $1 million for the ecological restoration of the properties. The peninsula will become a Wildlife Management Area operated by the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife.

The Bay Point buyout is not the first in Cumberland County – others have been offered in Sea Breeze and Thompson’s Beach – but it is the latest sign of a need for a broader policy of retreat from coastal areas that are especially vulnerable to sea-level rise, environmentalists said.

“The buyout of this community should make folks think about the impact of sea-level rise, driven by climate change, and the need to broaden this program,” said Tim Dillingham, executive director of the American Littoral Society, a national coastline-conservation group based in Millville, Cumberland County.

The expected evacuation of Bay Point – which lies about 15 miles southwest of Millville — over the coming year is another reminder that coastal development is increasingly vulnerable to rising seas and severe storms, Dillingham said.

“Are these communities defensible in light of sea-level rise and ongoing beach erosion?” he asked. “These are not the places for the public to make their investments.”

Allowing such areas to return to their natural state will benefit the globally important migratory bird populations of the Delaware Bay, and in turn boost the economically important ecotourism trade which is currently worth about $35 million a year along the bayshore, Dillingham said.

Some efforts to bolster coastal defenses make flooding worse in surrounding areas, Dillingham added. He contended that a sea wall at the coastal community of Gandy’s Beach to the south of Bay Point has increased the vulnerability of nearby Money Island and its surrounding salt marshes by diverting storm surges.

Meghan Wren, executive director the Bayshore Center at Bivalve, a conservation group, said she believes the local community is split over the buyout.

“It’s devastating to those that have made this their home for generations,” she said. “Even the people who are going to accept the buyout are not happy about it.”

Meanwhile, an outspoken critic of coastal buyouts said they damage the local tax base and destroy rural communities.

Bob Campbell, mayor of neighboring Downe Township, said the buyout will cut an important source of tax revenue from valuable beachfront properties, and kill a community, albeit a largely seasonal one, that has existed for generations.

His own township, which includes coastal communities such as Fortescue and Gandy’s Beach, gets 75 percent to 80 percent of its revenue from property taxes along the bayshore, and is spending some of the money on shoreline protection such as beach replenishment to help properties withstand future storms and flooding.

Campbell argued that the money tagged for the Bay Point buyout would be better spent on replenishing beaches or building sea walls to protect the community.

“If we can do it, they can do it,” he said in an interview.

Campbell criticized state and township officials for causing the demise of long-established coastal traditions such as the Bay Point Gun Club, which he said has existed for four or five generations.

Equally culpable, Campbell said, are any homeowners who use the buyout to dispose of properties that they have been unable to sell for years because of the housing crash and growing fears of exposure to storms and coastal flooding.

“I think they are being irresponsible in the long term,” he said. “Once they sell out and the homes are gone and the people are gone, there’s no going back.”