A few years ago the deputy mayor of Downe Township, a former neighbor here at Money Island, came up with the idea and we printed a bunch of bumper stickers and signs that said “No Retreat! Save the bay shore communities”. I say ‘we’ because as far as I know the project was paid for with public funds. I didn’t think that government should be involved in a choice that was essentially a private decision about their home or business. Our properties lie on the border of Downe Township and Lawrence Township. Lawrence Township took the opposite approach and vowed to support its residents no matter what they decided to do in reaction to state government property buyouts. The campaign was a great success as far as bumper stickers go. Several years later I still see the ‘No Retreat’ bumper stickers and signs everywhere. The campaign itself was not so successful. Most of my community, including the former local government official who designed the campaign, sold their properties to the state and retreated inland.
For some the ‘No Retreat’ slogan effectively summarizes the political and financial effort to retain all of our taxable real estate assets. Shoreline properties tend to be taxes at the highest rates within a community. Losing them can be financially disastrous to a community. For others, the slogan simply reflects an affinity for the bayshore community or a natural desire to keep family home. At the core of issue is the question: “Can humans survive the challenges of climate change at the bayshore?” For most, the answer has proven to be ‘no’. The financial demands and threats of government forced the decision for most of our neighbors. For me, the answer is ‘yes, but it requires major changes’. Only time will tell how the financial and government challenges will be met for the few businesses or residents that remain. A book coming out next year from Beacon Press covers this episode of local history.
The problem is that the scientists and accountants among us know that “No Retreat” is not a sustainable strategy per se. Virtually all of us who have been involved in sea level rise response planning recognize that we will lose some of our shoreline properties and communities. A reporter reported on the irony that under the force of a strong new moon tide, he saw the “No Retreat” signs floating down the flooded roadway. Delaware, Maryland, Virginia and other states are heavily involved in stakeholder discussions about how to handle this natural force. New Jersey lags far behind in this process. Some politicians still question the state’s official sea level rise projection that calls for some of our communities to be completely inundated within our lifetime.
The fact is that the overwhelming majority of community planners believe that strategic retreat is the best available strategy as a response to sea level rise. We will undoubtedly save some of our present waterfront and technology will allow some businesses – like aquaculture – to survive and even thrive in this new high water environment. But the older homes along the bayshore will eventually be swallowed up by the forces of erosion; the combined effect of more water and higher levels of destructive energy in the water.
The first wave of buyouts here at Money Island is complete. Next month the tear-downs will begin. A second wave of tear-downs will follow.
I predicted this series of events in a blog post and many public discussions. As an early forecaster of the trend, I was sometimes blamed for its impact. I still believe that this section of the bayshore needs to retreat to its commercial roots – fishing, shellfish, and aquaculture – but use new technologies to ensure sustainability for coming generations. The loss of our bayside vacation communities is a sad but inevitable development for many of us.