Historic NJ lighthouse battered by rising seas, now shuttered over contract dispute

East Point Lighthouse closed indefinitely as nonprofit custodian refuses to sign state’s new interim license agreement
East Point Lighthouse on the Delaware Bay in Cumberland County

The cracked and perpetually soaked two-lane road leading to New Jersey’s 162-year-old East Point Lighthouse is gradually going underwater. But, on drier days, even in winter, that doesn’t stop tourists from making the long trek to this remote piece of history clinging to the low edge of Cumberland County’s Delaware Bay shore. For now, though, all they can do is look in from the outside.

What the eroding land and rising water has been unable to completely consume, however, may now be in peril due to a dispute with the state Department of Environmental Protection over the landmark’s management lease.

Last March, the lease between the state — which owns the lighthouse and its grounds — and the Maurice River Historical Society, the nonprofit organization that has managed the property since 1972, expired. Instead of renewing the lease under the same terms, the DEP in January informed the society that it would need to sign an “interim license agreement” that the society believes is designed to kick it out.

The agreement would be “like signing both the lighthouse and the society’s death warrant,” said Nancy Patterson, president of the society.

The DEP said that’s not the intention.

“To maintain our partnership with Maurice River Historical Society and to provide continuity of stewardship for the lighthouse, NJDEP is willing to negotiate a new long-term lease with the historical society,” DEP spokesperson Caryn Shinske said.

“Until such an agreement could be reached, the DEP offered Maurice River Historical Society an interim license agreement to ensure their continued involvement with the lighthouse, pending agreement on a long-term lease.”

‘Backed into the corner’

The society has kept the lighthouse closed since mid-January because of the disagreement, unwilling to reopen the doors in the absence of a signed lease with the state that both parties can agree on.

Patterson’s core concern with the five-year interim agreement is that it includes a provision that says the state can at any time terminate its partnership with the society and be entitled to any funds the society has generated — through gift shop sales, grants, donations, etc. — expressly for the upkeep of the lighthouse. “If we sign it, then they could kick us out and take all our money; if we don’t sign it, they could kick us out because we don’t have a license agreement,” Patterson said, noting that the historical society pays for the property’s insurance, electric bills, general maintenance, and promotion. “We’re absolutely backed into the corner.” (The Coast Guard pays for the lantern’s upkeep.)

A lease allows a tenant to retain some right to ownership of the property — for example, to add lawn ornamentation or sublet to a third party. A license agreement, however, affords the owner strict control, merely giving the tenant permission to conduct an action — give tours to the public, for example — on the property.

Credit: Andrew S. Lewis
Nancy Patterson of the Maurice River Historical Society points to an area on the lighthouse property where the bay often breaches during high tide.

“As written, they’re basically saying ‘This is our land and we’re going to let you on it to do the following — run a store, make repairs, maintain the property — but at any time, if we feel like it, we can kick you off again,’” said Terry Bennett, a lawyer who is consulting with the historical society on the issue. “The implication is that the DEP would need some cause to do this, but their cause might be that they really just don’t want you there anymore.”

Bennett is helping the historical society draft a response to the DEP, outlining its concerns with the interim agreement, that it will submit this week, in the hope that the department will be open to negotiation.

‘A big bowl of water with no place to go’

In 2017, a multimillion-dollar, federal- and state-funded project restored East Point to its 19th century stature, but that did nothing for the disappearing shoreline surrounding the lighthouse’s granite foundation and perpetually flooded basement. Originally built 500 feet back from the water, today it’s less than 100 feet from the high tide line.

In 2019, the state invested $460,000 in a 570-foot geotube berm, an 8-foot-diameter tube made of synthetic material and filled with sand. The project was a Band-Aid intended to stave off inundation until a longer-term solution — such as elevating the lighthouse or moving it altogether — could be implemented.

As soon as it was installed, however, the geotube proved ineffective during highwater storm events, which on this stretch of Delaware Bay shore, are a common occurrence.

Patterson says the berm was not high enough. “The DEP is always screaming about sea level rise, and they didn’t even build the geotube as high as the natural dune had been before Hurricane Sandy, so the bay goes right over it,” she said. “Now, East Point is a big bowl of water with no place to go.” (As part of its Protecting Against Climate Threats initiative, the state is in the process of updating land-use regulations to account for future sea-level rise.)

After Hurricane Isaias caused serious flooding at East Point in August, the historical society drew up an emergency plan to build more berms around the property, install a wooden walkway, and spread crushed shell on the dirt lane leading to the lighthouse’s parking lot.

Political help

It was a long shot, Patterson said, given that in the past the DEP had denied many of the society’s requests to conduct its own flood protection projects. But after she contacted Sen. Michael Testa (R-Cumberland) for help, Patterson said she was told by the DEP that the emergency plan had been authorized.

The good news came just after Christmas. Patterson celebrated; donations for the project started pouring in. But less than two weeks later, she was sent the interim agreement. Without an active occupancy agreement and unwilling to sign the interim agreement, Patterson feared that conducting work of any kind on the property could be interpreted by the DEP as a breach of contract, so the society postponed the emergency plan and closed the lighthouse, museum and gift shop indefinitely.

Patterson alerted Testa, as well as U.S. Rep. Jeff Van Drew (R-NJ), of her concerns over the interim license. Testa contacted the DEP’s acting commissioner Shawn LaTourette.

“Nancy has put her heart and soul into doing everything that she possibly can to preserve the lighthouse,” Testa said. “I want the experts to get in there and determine what the best long-term plan is to save it.”

Testa noted that he and Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) agree that East Point needs to be protected as both a historical site and a place for tourists to visit. “I’m hoping all parties can come together and build a consensus as to what the plan for East Point is going to be,” he said.

Major mitigation project one mile away

A mile to the northwest, at the other end of the wide, shallow mouth of the Maurice River, one of the most ambitious sea-level-rise mitigation efforts ever undertaken on New Jersey’s Delaware Bay shore is set to begin.

The American Littoral Society, which is leading the project, has secured $4.8 million in federal funds to begin a $12 million project that will build breakwaters and rock revetments to both absorb storm surge and reestablish shoreline that has disappeared over the last three decades.

The remaining $7 million would need to come from a state match “that’s not yet secured,” said Tim Dillingham, the Littoral Society’s executive director. The structures would protect the historic port of Bivalve, where the majority of the bay’s oyster fleet is docked, from the encroaching bay.

“Just like Bivalve, East Point is an irreplaceable, historic resource, and it’s vulnerable and being worn away,” Dillingham said. “Something needs to be done.”

While the Littoral Society has included in its plans an additional phase that would include a breakwater to protect East Point’s highly exposed, west-facing shore, it would require additional funding beyond the current $12 million price tag.

Dillingham hopes they can find the extra money. “This is a critical project at a critical time,” he said. “There really isn’t a lot of time to waste anymore.”

Meanwhile, East Point sits shuttered and in legal limbo, a red-and-white monolith balanced on an ever-shifting landscape.

“The DEP is currently assessing its options on how the interior of the structure may be made accessible to the public and remains committed to working with [the historical society] should it reconsider its decision [to not sign the interim license],” the DEP’s Shinske said. “The lighthouse grounds remain open to the public.”

“It seems like they want to just be able to close it up,” Patterson said. “And for us to go away.”

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