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In Ocean City’s Back Bays, Where’s the Water?

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(Credit: Ian Bush)

(Credit: Ian Bush)

Ian Bush Ian Bush
Ian Bush is an anchor, reporter, news editor, and technology editor&nb...
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By Ian Bush

OCEAN CITY, N.J. (CBS) — Ocean City is a dry town, but in part of that Jersey shore point, “dry” means a lot more than a lack of liquor stores.

Snug Harbor, off 9th Street north of the bridge, is one of the back bay spots where there’s little water to be seen at low tide, as sands and other sediments have built up and need to be dredged. But they won’t be — for at least another summer.

“It’s really disheartening — it’s really taken the wind out of our sails,” says Sean Barnes, as he looks across the lagoon from his Revere Place home, still being rebuilt after Hurricane Sandy.

“In low tide right now, there’s no water in the lagoon at all,” he explains. “There’s actually vegetation growing. There’s very soft mud — you can’t even walk in it, it’s that soft. You’d sink up to your waist.”

The problem is where to put the dredging spoils. Ocean City officials blame the New Jersey Department of Transportation, in part, for not including a larger disposal site as planned under the new Route 52 Causeway, completed in 2012.

That construction project, while widely lauded as improving access between the barrier island and the mainland, is also said by the city to have “disproportionately affected” Snug Harbor, according to a 2013 easement distributed to residents.

But twice this year — in official updates posted in February and May — Ocean City told residents that a permit application to expand the 9th Street Bridge disposal area had been filed.  In mid-July, however, the state Department of Environmental Protection told KYW Newsradio that no such application had been received.

Ocean City Mayor Jay Gillian and Administrator Jim Mallon now say that as of late July, a proposal has been submitted.  They point to a $2.6 million federal grant designed to help with dredging spoils removal as the reason for the document’s delay.

Gillian has called dredging a priority for his administration.  Still, officials warn that a decision from the Army Corps of Engineers on the permit application isn’t expected for another six months.  They say that would allow dredging to begin — at the earliest — on July 1, 2015.

Barnes keeps his sailboat in drydock; he rarely even gets to use his stand-up paddleboard.  But more than that, he has safety concerns.

“In front of our lagoon, you go from navigable water that’s maybe 4-5ft at high tide to an immediate drop to 1-2ft at high tide,” he explains.  “If someone is coming through the channel on a small boat, they’re going to hit that wall of mud, and someone’s going to get hurt.”

Barnes believes fumes from rotting sediment could be a health risk for him and his neighbors.  And, he says, even those who don’t live or work in the back bays will feel the economic impact.

“There’s no sense in renting a property in the water if you can’t get your boat in and out of your boat slip,” Barnes says.  “Home values have dropped considerably. We have a few homeowners here trying to sell and rent their properties and they can’t do so. If these values drop, the city’s tax revenues drop. The more valuable these properties are on the bayfront, the more we’re paying in taxes, and the rest of the property owners in Ocean City see their tax dollars decreased.”

Even with an expansion of the Causeway spoils site, the city will have more dredging material than space to dispose of it.  So, officials say, they’re looking at emptying an existing spoils site near 34th Street — a multi-million dollar proposition.  This, as city recently closed a $1.8 million dredging project of lagoons between 15th and 34th Streets without the completion of that work, because there wasn’t enough room for the contractor to dump the material.

Ocean City is mounting a fight against federal and state regulations that treat what they say are the largely clean sand and fine silt dredge spoils in South Jersey the same as the often-contaminated material seen along industrial areas of the North Jersey coast.  Officials say a legislative fix is needed if the problem is to see a long-term solution.

For Barnes, the joy of seeing his Snug Harbor home stand strong as construction winds down ahead of the second anniversary of Sandy is dulled by the dry lagoon in the shadow of his property.

“We’re very frustrated — we don’t know what to do next,” he says.  “We want an honest answer and an honest effort, more importantly, to get the job done.”

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