Bayshore Pursues Recovery Plan After Missing Out on Bulk of Federal Funding

Jon Hurdle | March 24, 2014 | Sandy
Four towns in Cumberland County are putting together and acting on a Sandy-recovery initiative of their own

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Four townships along Cumberland County’s Delaware Bayshore are setting out their own plan to recover from Sandy and defend against future rises in sea level. The initiative comes after these four — along with the rest of the county — missed out on much of the federal funding that is helping nine other New Jersey counties to rebuild.

The Cumberland County Delaware Bayshore Recovery Plan is seeking around $170 million from federal, state, and local sources for projects such as rebuilding dunes and beaches, purchasing emergency generators, dredging silted-up creeks, elevating flood-prone roads, and reviving tourism in an area that was economically depressed even before Sandy struck.

The plan, whose most recent version was published in late February, is a wide-ranging effort to repair and improve the defenses of a community that sees its failure to qualify for the main tranche of recovery funding as the latest example of neglect by state and federal authorities.

Below the Economic Threshold

“The economic impact on the county fell below the threshold that would have qualified Cumberland for the bulk of federal assistance from Superstorm Sandy Supplemental Funds,” the report said. “As a result, the county is forced to be extra vigilant and resourceful in identifying available technical and financial resources to assist its long-term recovery.”

Compiled over four months by community organizations, Cumberland County officials, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Community Recovery Assistance Team, the plan identifies 26 projects in four broad areas that are designed to speed
recovery from Sandy while building defenses against the next major storm and preparing for sea-level rise in coming decades. It builds on local plans, such as one published by Downe Township, one of the four communities that contributed to the proposals.

The initiative would encourage businesses to remain, and work with banks and realtors to find the finances that would enable entrepreneurs to reopen shops and restaurants that were devastated by Sandy, or that closed in recent years in response to the flagging local economy in the largely rural South Jersey county.

Cumberland Co. Map (expandable)

The plan, which also included input from Greenwich, Maurice River, and Commercial townships, proposes investing in eco-tourism facilities such as a rails-to-trails network, and calls for up to $1 million to help revive the oyster industry which was once the economic lifeblood of the bay shore.

FEMA initially sought input from Downe, Maurice River, and Commercial townships, and later added Greenwich after a request from that community to become involved, said Meghan Wren, executive director of the nonprofit Bayshore Center at Bivalve, and a leading voice in the recovery plan. Two other local townships, Lawrence and Fairfield, were not interested in participating, she said.

Sandy-related damage in the four townships included devastated homes, breached dikes, severe beach erosion, and the closure of businesses, together cost the area millions of dollars, the report said.

Slim Margins

The 120-page document warned that local businesses, already struggling, may not be able to withstand another big storm or sea-level rise unless they get help now.

“Many Bayshore businesses are working on little margin—some, none
at all—and resiliency is not likely to happen without assistance,” the report said.

Wren said the bay shore is especially deserving of investment because it has been neglected in the past.

“This is an area that has not had investment for the most part so there’s some catch-up to do,” she said in an interview.

While the biggest price stickers are attached to infrastructure and shoreline projects, such as the dredging and restoration of the mouth of the Maurice River for an estimated $50 million, the program also identifies more modestly priced measures that would coordinate the efforts of public and private groups.

For example, it estimated that $1,000-$5,000 would pay to create a Bayshore Resiliency Roundtable that would bring together parties including municipalities, conservation organizations, and landowners to decide how to deal with issues like flooding, coastal erosion, and emergency management. The Roundtable would build on the efforts of local groups that are already working on Sandy recovery, and which in some cases have overlapped, the report said. It aims to synthesize the local plans and create a holistic approach to recovery.

In the case of infrastructure improvements, the project aims to improve on existing facilities in anticipation of higher seas and bigger storms, rather than just replacing what was lost to Sandy, Wren said.

She urged state government to help with the funding request after Cumberland County was excluded from the approximately $3.2 billion in Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that is being allocated in two tranches to the nine other counties.

“There have been some situations that have suggested that it’s not a priority for the state to recover these communities, so I think a good-faith showing by the state that they are investing in these communities would be an important first step for additional investment,” she said.

Mike Drewniak, a spokesman for Gov. Chris Christie, said Cumberland could still receive some of the approximately 17 percent of the CDBG funds that the state plans to distribute outside the nine hardest-hit counties.

Almost all of the state’s programs have some funding going outside the nine counties, Drewniak said.

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“Cumberland could receive some of this funding but it is dependent on the eligibility requirements of each of these programs,” Drewniak wrote in an email. “We have been highly cognizant of the impact in Cumberland and other counties not selected to be among the nine most-impacted counties.”

Although Cumberland did not receive the HUD money, it has received other forms of federal and state assistance, Drewniak said. That includes $3.45 million in individual and other grants from FEMA; $1.9 million in loans from the Small Business Administration; and $15 million in payments to individual homeowners from the National Flood Insurance Program.

The state has also agreed to buy out 33 homes and vacant lots at Baypoint, an isolated coastal community that was severely damaged by Sandy, for $9.4 million.

Wren acknowledged that Cumberland had received the funding from various sources but argues that the total pales by comparison with the support for the counties that were designated as hardest-hit.

She called the approximately $5 million in FEMA funds so far distributed to Cumberland County “a pittance” compared with the total going to the nine counties.

And she questioned whether the funds promised to buy out Baypoint homeowners would actually be made. “They have seen not one penny so far,” she said. “There is no guarantee that money will be paid.”

Adam Glantz, a spokesman for FEMA, said Cumberland didn’t get the CDBG funds because it was not among the areas worst-affected by Sandy, but still could get some of the money, at the discretion of the state, which can use up to 20 percent of the federal money outside the nine counties.

“The hardest-hit communities were designated by HUD based on a formula of housing, business, and infrastructure needs,” Glantz wrote in an email. “Based on this formula, Cumberland County was not deemed one of the hardest-hit communities.”

Fewer than 1 percent of Cumberland’s taxable properties were damaged in the storm, meaning that the county fell below the “hardest-hit” designation set by HUD, Wren said. Even though many more than 1 percent were damaged in some coastal communities, the county-wide number fell below the HUD threshold because its main population centers are inland and so were less affected.

The nine counties are: Atlantic, Bergen, Cape May, Essex, Hudson, Middlesex, Monmouth, Ocean, and Union.

Rebuild or Retreat?

Meanwhile, bay shore residents are making their own judgments about whether to rebuild or retreat in the face of seas that are projected to rise about three feet along the Jersey coastline by the end of the century, Wren said.

“You measure vulnerability with asset value and you determine what’s worth the investment,” she said.

While there’s still room for discussion over the extent of sea-level rise in coming decades, there’s no doubt that some rise will occur, she said.

“People are still treating it as if it is still debatable,” she said. “Certainly, how many inches in how many years is debatable but the fact that water is rising isn’t debatable, and as it rises we will have additional impacts from future storms.”

But Bob Campbell, Mayor of Downe Township, argued that the bay shore’s flooding problems are caused by erosion and a lack of maintenance of coastal assets like dunes and bulkheads, and not by sea-level rise.

Campbell praised the recovery report overall but said he was “skeptical about climate change and sea-level rise”, especially after an exceptionally cold winter.

While the broader community is looking for ways to fund the ambitious recovery plan, Downe Township is implementing its own projects such as beach restoration, and is planning to offer tax incentives to businesses to set up in the township’s three communities: Fortescue, Gandy’s Beach, and Money Island, which have a total of about 440 homes, Campbell said.

Bulkheads and Beachfront

He said his township – 75 percent of which is less than 10 feet above sea level — has received about $1 million in grants from various sources over the past 12 months for improvements such as rebuilding bulkheads. Repair of the township’s shoreline is economically imperative, Campbell said, because 80 percent of its revenue comes from beachfront properties.

Campbell also accused state officials of neglecting Cumberland County. “New Jersey has turned a blind eye to the bay shore community,” he said.

But Larry Ragonese, a spokesman for the Department of Environmental Protection, rejected the charge that the DEP has ignored Cumberland’s needs.

He said the department has helped with debris cleanup and paid about $700,000 to the county to dredge Fortescue Creek, in addition to agreeing to buy out storm-damaged homes at Baypoint.

“We’re aware that they feel a bit left out,” he said. “We’ve done our best to work with them.”

But Jim Watson, Director of Development for the Cumberland County Development Authority, said the state has not supported the largely rural county to the same extent as it does in other areas, and that people recognize that.

“Folks are discouraged because they really have been denied so often,” he said. “The state has made it very clear that it has not been a priority to sustain this part of the state.”