Soft footprint housing at the bayshore

One of the greatest challenges to sustainability at the New Jersey bayshore is housing. The conventional and widely supported shoreline management strategy known as “strategic retreat” is likely best social, economic and political strategy. But that doesn’t mean that we intend to withdraw 100% of the people for 100% of the time. We anticipate a continued need for some housing at the bayshore to serve both recreational and aquacultural uses. Baysave intends to support new approaches to the need for housing in ways that conform to evolving standards.

Sustainability means serving the needs of all users and stakeholders. Environmentalists effectively make the point that the best way to sustain any of our natural areas or resources is to simply keep humans away from them. But that’s not realistic and it’s not the goal of sustainability planning. Humans are part of the equation and we need to balance the demands of human use with the best practices to preserve and sustain our natural resources.

One of the requirements of human use is housing. At it’s core, housing is primarily a means to stay protected from the extremes of  weather while also providing us with some level of protection and privacy. At the New Jersey bayshore, considering the current physical environment, available technologies and current laws, sustainable housing in our means soft footprint housing. This blog post considers the goals, current conditions, and future possibilities for soft footprint housing at the bayshore.

Goals

  1. Short term use – We do not anticipate the need for permanent 365 day a year living at the bayshore. It is simply not the best choice for a permanent residence. The overwhelming demand for housing is for short term seasonal use. Increasingly frequent flooding, extremes of weather, lack of public utilities, etc. make future demand of permanent housing here seem unlikely.
  2. Affordable – The bayshore region of New Jersey is a low income area compared to the rest of the state and the rest of the middle Atlantic region. Planners argue that the state’s “one size fits all” approach to land use and building codes is a leading contributor to the current state of economic depression and long term depopulation of the bayshore region.
  3. Legal – Housing at the bayshore is controlled primarily by state laws including the Coastal Wetlands Act of 1970 and subjects us to permit requirement rules known as CAFRA. While there are efforts to update and modernize existing laws, our focus is to operate within the law as it exists today.
  4. Physically resistant – The history of housing at the bayshore is a circular story of building, destruction at the hands of storms and erosion, then rebuilding, then destruction again. We intend to break the cycle.

Current conditions

Land use laws – New Jersey’s bayshore communities face competing laws requiring support for affordable housing, laws that cover private property use and laws that restrict land use to protect the environment. We must seek out the balance point between those. The cost of compliance with existing land use laws at the bayshore precludes the application of a land use permit that would likely more than double the cost of a typical proposed project. This means that our legal compliance strategy must focus on allowable land use that does not require a state permit.

Affordable housing crisis – While New Jersey has a requirement for communities to address affordable housing issues but the local communities have made no progress in this area. The number of housing units within reasonable commuting distance to the waterfront continues to decline and we have no current ability to provide necessary on-site housing to rebuild the local businesses. The closest affordable housing is a 30 minute drive away whereas the aquaculture industry (especially crab shedding) and recreational industry (boat launch management) requires full time 24-hour on site staffing.

Carry-in, carry out – Our current environment demands that we bring in the things we need to sustain a comfortable stay: food, water, electric and other energy sources, internet, and other supplies. We must also carry out our solid waste and wastewater for handling at an approved facility.

Owner-occupied – Current laws do not provide for any multi-unit rental or campground type of use and the rezoning possibility has not been assessed. For now, we are focused on single owner-occupied dwellings.

Tidal flooding – The effects of more frequent tidal flooding must be considered. While wet-proof infrastructure is relatively easy to construct, the long term effects of salt water corrosion on vehicles, machinery and infrastructure is significant. We have a local anecdotal system for measuring tidal flooding that casually monitors the number of times that the roadway is under water and translates that to a percentage of time the local area is flooded. The overall percentage of time we have tidal road flooding is still small (less than 5% of the time) but this condition is increasing at an alarming pace.

Technology – New technologies have not been tested in the bayshore environment due to legal and financial restrictions.

Economic impact – It is clear that the lack of workable housing solution is having a massive adverse impact on the aquaculture and recreational use industries. It is probably accurate to say that this is now the #1 impediment to economic recovery of our bayshore region.

Future possibilities

RVs – Motorized vehicles that provide a short term dwelling and drive away when not used or when threatened with adverse weather conditions. Regulation of these as vehicles and not as dwellings makes this the most “doable” but also most expensive option.

Campers  or trailers – This is the historically popular method. Most of the bayshore’s housing (including the author’s) originally started with a camper or trailer. Current restrictions limit the use of campers or trailers on private property.

Tiny houses – This is a hybrid type of dwelling that legally classified as a trailer but designed more like traditional housing. New Jersey laws are currently not not supportive of tiny houses as long term dwellings. The primary draw of this approach for us is it ability to draw together creative contributors. The popular momentum of the tiny house movement compared to the other options means that this area may see legal change sooner than other types of new dwellings.

Boats and floating dwellings – Almost a third of our former residential land is now below mean high tide level. 100% of our land is occasionally below water in tidal flooding conditions. Both sea level rise and tidal flooding conditions are expected to accelerate. The most common type of floating housing, of course, are cabin-equipped boats and occasionally a houseboat. Cabin boats account for majority of overnight human  stays along bayshores yet these are not common here in our region simply because most users could not afford to own and maintain a boat of that size. We see the possibility of additional types of floating housing. The use of floating housing on lots that are below mean high tide and are therefore sometimes dry but sometimes below water is unresolved. I’ve personally designed and built several outbuildings or structures (including a floating tool shed, a floating deck, and a floating car port) and found that our local building inspector expressed frustration that these do not fall under any clear set of regulations.

Tents or Yurts – Until recently, New Jersey maintained and rented yurts for short term living at its state parks. These were abandoned after reports of mold problems. Tents are still popular as short term use from beaches to woodlands. Conventional commercially available tents tested at the bayshore are unsuitable and are typically destroyed at the first windstorm. More durable tents have not been tested.

Hurricane resistant housing – domed structures on coastlines in other parts of the country offer the possibility of hurricane resistant housing. These structures have not been tested locally despite increased interest after the destruction of superstorm Sandy.

Action plan

Baysave intends to facilitate the development and testing of housing innovations that:

1. Do not require land use permitting.

2. Are supported by public and/or private investors.

3. Have the highest chance of gaining acceptance at the bayshore.


Conclusion

We believe that the most successful bayshore dwellings of the future will likely combine the past methods in ways that incorporate new technology that has not yet been field tested here. There is interest in funding and field-testing new dwelling concepts and we think that this should be an integral part of the sustainability planning for the bayshore.

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This photograph taken in 2017 shows part of a former residence constructed on dry land decades ago that was consumed by sea level rise and storms. It was finally destroyed in superstorm Sandy in 2012. Now the structures are completely removed. Almost 100% of the lot is now below mean high tide line and the state has acquired the property for open space.

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