Tuesday, May 15, 2007

A Beach That Will Blow You Away ... PLUS: A Summer Guide to the Jersey Shore (No, Really)

Your tax dollars at work, replenishing Surf City's beaches.

Among other things that I am a crank about (oh, you didn't know there were more?) is the 127-mile long New Jersey seashore, which ought to be one of the natural wonders and great travel destinations of the Northeast, but isn't.

(Nevertheless, some personal evaluations of various Jersey Shore towns that do welcome visitors, to one degree or another, are listed in the second half of this post).

What draws me to the Jersey Shore today is rather alarming news that more than 1,000 unexploded bombs and other munitions have been detected lurking in the vast quantity of sand that the Army Corps of Engineers -- the Keystone Kops of public-works bureaucracies -- has dredged up and deposited as part of a $70 million beach-erosion replenishment project in a seashore town called Surf City. The explosives, which apparently date from World War I, have "the potential to cause loss of limb, of eyesight and, under the right circumstances, (italics mine) to cause loss of life," the Army Corps of Engineers said, employing a particularly hamhanded turn of phrase.

That project is, in turn, part of the Corps' vast, endless and utterly useless quest to funnel tax money into replacing beaches that no one ought to be building expensive houses on because the ocean is just going to keep eroding the sand.

Residents on those beaches include many people who fully expect the government to bail them out and replace their houses, or replenish beaches on their pretty, exclusive seashore enclaves, when the ocean does what the ocean does, which is push sand around and occasionally flood beachfronts. That's especially true for the coastal barrier islands that most New Jersey seashore towns are located on.

Beautiful as much of it is, the reason the Jersey Shore is not much of a national tourist attraction is that outsiders are not welcome on vast stretches of it.

In the haughtier beach towns, day-trippers are especially discouraged -- partly by attitude and mostly by lack of parking and quirky beach-fee regulations. In some of these towns, homeowners rule, with seasonal renters in a secondary role. Monthly and two-week renters are merely tolerated. Day-trippers are looked upon with horror.

In Surf City, of course, the presence of bombs in the sand has created concern about the summer season. Beachgoers are now being warned not to use their little sand-castle shovels to dig more than a few inches into the sand, for fear of triggering a bomb. A local shop owner is selling tee-shirts that say: "Our Beach Will Blow You Away."

Yes, only in Jersey.

Surf City, incidentally, is one of the less-restrictive seashore towns on Long Beach Island, a beautiful but precariously situated barrier island, 21 miles long, a half mile wide, and a mere 6 feet above sea level. On the other hand, Surf City does tell you that you need to make a phone call to order beach badges.

It is widely believed by coastal scientists, by the way, that Long Beach Island, which has not experienced a major hurricane or winter storm since it was virtually wiped out by a storm in pre-development days in 1962, is a disaster waiting to happen. And just wait till taxpayers get the bill for that sucker.

Starting in the late 1960s, exclusive little Long Beach Island enclaves like Harvey Cedars and Loveladies became dotted and then crowded with expensive beach-front mansions and a lot of new (and often politically connected) residents who, as I said, 1. Demand beach renewal every time the beach erodes, as it does regularly, and 2. Go to clever lengths to discourage outsiders from intruding on those taxpayer funded beaches, while insisting that the beaches are technically open to everyone.

In the last 12 years, by my calculations (and I covered this subject regularly when I wrote a weekly column called Jersey in the New York Times in the 1990s) well over $300 million in federal and state tax money has been spent in the Army Corps of Engineer's fool's errand to prevent the ocean from shifting sand around, as the ocean is inexorably going to do, especially when said sand is a naturally shifting barrier island.

One of the great supporters of this boondoggle, incidentally, was the former New Jersey Governor, the famously dim Christine Todd Whitman, a former obscure county freeholder who became governor in 1993 after a thoroughly nasty smear campaign against the Democratic incumbent, Jim Florio.

Most of the lickspittle statehouse reporters fawned over the very wealthy Mrs. Whitman, but I referred to her as "Farmer Whitman." That's because in a state with the highest property taxes in the nation, Farmer Whitman -- in a legal ploy used by other rich New Jersey landowners -- declared her two sprawling estates (both of which have expensive residences on them) as working farms. Being "farms," they qualified for dirt cheap (so to speak) property taxes under a state policy ostensibly designed to preserve individual farms and open space, but which in fact also allows wily big private land-owners to avoid paying any more than a minute fraction of the property taxes they would otherwise owe.

In 1992, according to a story in the Newark Star-Ledger that conspicuously failed to gain real traction among the Whitman-protectors in the New Jersey and New York news media, Farmer Whitman and her husband Farmer John paid $47 in property taxes on the smaller of their estates, a 51-acre spread. They paid a whopping $148 in annual property taxes on the larger spread, a 206-acre estate in New Jersey horse country.

The farming activities on both Whitman estates, err, I mean farms, largely consisted of the sale of a few hundred dollars of firewood annually to relatives. (Other, less brazen, rich New Jersey landowners get their estates qualified for farm assessments by allowing independent people to rent a small piece of the land to run small operations like selling produce or raising a handful of Angus cattle for beef).

Farmer Whitman, of course, later joined the Bush cabinet as secretary of the Environmental Protection Agency. She's long gone back to the farm(s), where I suppose she's still growing firewood.

I mention Farmer Whitman only to highlight some of the mysteries one routinely deals with in New Jersey.

But I digress. Back to the beach.

In a story about the battle against beach erosion in New Jersey in 2000, the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote in part:

"From the great stone wall of Sea Bright to the reefs off Cape May Point - dedicated by Gov. Whitman herself five years ago - an Inquirer analysis shows that in the last 50 years, federal and state taxpayers have spent at least $600 million to protect coastal real estate. Most of that is investment property."

The story quotes one of the eminent coastal geologists in the country:

"Our obligation should be toward protecting the people," said Norbert P. Psuty, a Rutgers University geologist, "but should we be protecting their investments?"

That's essentially what these monstrously expensive beach-replenishments are doing, protecting private investments. Protecting public resources is not the main goal, because much of the Jersey seashore -- crammed with those expensive beachfront homes -- is severely restricted to public access.

The Jersey shore -- whose main geological feature is barrier islands that naturally shift with the push and pull of the ocean -- routinely experiences significant beach erosion. And coastal ecologists point to the Jersey shore -- with its long history of artificially girding beaches with walls, jetties and groins that actually exacerbate beach erosion -- as the poster child illustrating how not to manage an ocean shoreline.

As a kid growing up in Philadelphia, I spent many a fine summer's day or even week in Wildwood, the once honky-tonk and now surprisingly gentrifying seashore town at the southern tip of the Jersey shore. (By quirk of geology, Wildwood does not need beach replenishment. Ironically, its beach has actually become so wide that it created a problem).

But even as a kid, or in high school, I was aware that other beach towns -- the lovely Avalon and Stone Harbor just to the north, for example -- were not especially receptive to my presence.

When challenged, the exclusive New Jersey beach towns always howl that they aren't restricted. But ask yourself why, come to think of it, there are so few hotels and motels on the Jersey shore -- Atlantic City, Wildwood and Cape May excepted?

Among the tricks some towns employ, besides an absence of public parking, are beach-tags that can be purchased only by the month or season, effectively limiting beach use to seasonal residents. Beach tags are usually supposedly available by the day, but often can't be purchased because the office selling them is closed or not easily found, or the quota for the day has been met.

Still, the Jersey shore can be pleasant enough if you choose the right spot. But remember, except for Wildwood, Atlantic City, Cape May and a few other places, there is a conspicuous dearth of hotels.

Here's a short Baedeker on the places I consider at least reasonably accessible on the Jersey Shore:

* Spring Lake -- One of the prettiest towns on the Jersey shore, with beach fees and some terrific restaurants, but you can tell they really don't want you here if you're just coming for a day at the beach. Try to find a place to park that car on a hot summer day!

* Point Pleasant Beach -- Daily beach fees for the southern half of the beach. Northern half is not open to the public at all. Lively little boardwalk. Parking available.

* Belmar -- Beach fees; pleasant replenished beach. PArking available.

* Ocean Grove A little heavy on the Methodist camp revival stuff, Ocean Grove has no bars, of course. But the beach is pleasant. They no longer close the town gates on Saturday nights to prevent people from enjoying the Sabbath. Parking difficult.

* Seaside Heights -- If you wanted to make a movie about a classic Boardwalk town, this is where you'd shoot it. But be careful, the cops are notorious for hassling young people and others who don't strictly toe the line. Dumpy hotels, motels and boarding houses, but there is that great Boardwalk with rides (including one of the great classic antique carousels with original hand-carved horses and a working mechanical Wurlitzer military band organ) and terrific junk food. A Jersey Shore day-tipper's delight. Fee for beach access, but cheap and readily available. Parking plentiful.

* Atlantic City -- Whoa, you mean they still have a beach here? Yes, not much of one, but it's free. This is the town that invented the seashore as a summertime leisure activity (I know Coney Island historians disagree, but they're wrong). However, Atlantic City is now a half-baked version of Las Vegas, without the buzz. Hotels are expensive and usually full. The famed five-mile-long Boardwalk is now casino alley, and almost all of its old eccentric charm -- Steel Pier! -- has been diligently eradicated. Strictly for shopping, dining and gambling. Parking? You could park half of Los Angeles in those casino garages.

* Ocean City -- Bills itself, absurdly, as "America's greatest family resort." Obviously, these people haven't traveled much. But it's a nice enough place, and you can do it as a day trip if you work out the driving (about 3 hours from New York). Beach erosion (you pay to pay to get on what's left of it at any given time) is a chronic problem, though they keep replenishing it (thank you, taxpayers). The Boardwalk is indeed a family treat. Note: The Methodists, summer-beach-camp spoilsports that they were, outlawed booze eons ago, and it stuck)

* Wildwood -- Hands down, the world's greatest Boardwalk, a perennial carnival with amusement piers that feature world-class roller coasters and other rides. Till 10 a.m. each day, you can rent a bike and ride the two-mile length of the Boardwalk.

Pluses: Absolutely free, white-sand beaches, wide enough to play volley-ball on and not hit another living non-playing soul in the noggin with the ball. Good nightlife, though seriously drained since Atlantic City got its second life with the arrival of casinos. Abundant parking.

Minuses: Due to an utter freak of geology, the absolutely free white-sand beaches -- in defiance of trend everywhere else on the coast -- keep getting wider. In some spots, it's now a quarter mile from the Boardwalk to the ocean's edge, giving new meaning to the term "hot-footing it."

Also, due to a reality of geography, Wildwood (actually a handful of contiguous towns all with "Wildwood in their names), is in the middle of nowhere, just above the Jersey cape, 40 miles south of Atlantic City and a good two hours from Philadelphia.

Also, while there are tons of motels (the vintage ones are marketed as examples of an indigenous "Doo-Wop" architectural style), many of them are too expensive for what they offer: thin walls, Doo-Wop-vintage furnishings, and owners with high-handed attitudes they really cannot afford to maintain anymore since Wildwood's decline from its heyday in the 60s and 70s, when it was affectionately known as Philadelphia's Riviera.

* Cape May -- Victorian gingerbread houses, yada, yada -- oh, for Christ's sake, would you people please shut up about those goddamn Victorian gingerbread houses! At the southern tip of the Jersey shore, at the point where Delaware Bay meets the ocean, Cape May has a crowded beach (there's a charge) that continually needs taxpayer-funded replenishment. There's a small Boardwalk. Lots of chi-chi shops all around. There are some truly great restaurants and a good number of top-notch B&Bs (but then, to paraphrase the cranky B&B lady in the great 1996 David O. Russell/Ben Stiller movie, "Flirting With Disaster," we are not B&B people.)

Also, Cape May is even farther away than Wildwood. It is, in fact, literally south of the Mason-Dixon line. Because its the last or first landfall on major seasonal migration routes for birds crossing the wide mouth of Delaware Bay, Cape May is very popular with birdwatchers at certain times of the year.


1 comment:

esker said...

What a great story! I am a former Coastal Zone regulator from Massachusetts and Virginia. Wow, does mention of Corp boondoggles raise the hackles. I write a blog at:

My blog deals with environmental and economic disasters. Please take a look and make some comments. I like the newest entry "Sand Castles" because it is about a local barrier beach disaster.