Nature, economics collide on N.J. shore Traditional boardwalks replaced with concrete or movable structures


BELMAR, N.J. -- It has been more than four years since a ferocious northeaster raked the towns along the coast of New Jersey, the storm's 90-mph winds and pounding surf destroying whole sections of boardwalk.

Afterward, some hard-hit towns did what they always did: They simply rebuilt their boardwalks. Not rebuilding was not an option in those towns, which rely on tourists for whom boardwalks are as emblematic of the New Jersey shore as salt water taffy.

But other towns, faced with declining state aid and scarcer local tax dollars, began to consider new approaches. The northeaster may have been the worst storm to hit the coast in 30 or 40 years, but the mayors said they realized they were essentially in a losing battle with the sea and the sand.

As a result, the boardwalk in Spring Lake is now made of a wood substitute of sawdust and plastic that requires less maintenance than regular wood. In Bradley Beach, the boardwalk is not really a boardwalk anymore; it is a pathway made with concrete paving stones and built farther inland.

'Peace with honor'

And Belmar chose to make its boardwalk removable. Forklifts and backhoes dismantle the boardwalk and take it inland during hurricane season and winters.

"This stuff is expensive, but we couldn't do away with the boardwalk which attracts so many tourists," said Belmar Mayor Kenneth Pringle. "I guess we accepted the realities of Mother Nature and made a strategic withdrawal. It's what I like to call peace with honor."

Hard-pressed blue-collar towns reliant on weekend visitors often made decisions different from those of more affluent communities less dependent on tourism. But in almost all cases, said Norbert Psuty, director of the Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences at Rutgers University, officials acted with a keen eye toward cost-effectiveness and cutting their economic losses over time.

"It's part of the tenor of the times," he said. "They are looking for ways to cut budgets in ways that some of their predecessors were not."

Bradley Beach Mayor Stephen Schueler said the town had been spending $40,000 to $50,000 a year to maintain its old boardwalk. Even so, he described it as "rickety, fall-down and like a child whose hair had not been combed."

"We know the ocean is rising and coming inland so we decided to retreat as well as get away from the traditional wood solutions," he said. "Now 90 percent of our boardwalk is masonry which is cool to the feet, low maintenance and has 20 times the life of wood."

'Difficult to draw a line'

Many of these Monmouth County shorefront towns are looking as well to the promise of federally financed beach replenishment programs that would replace yards of lost sand and restore the storm-raked dunes that once prevented some of the storm damage to boardwalks and other structures.

But dependence on such money has long been controversial among groups that see it as throwing tax dollars into the ocean. As a result, some areas to the south, such as Avalon and Ocean City, have used their own scarce funds for periodic beach replenishment in tandem with rebuilding boardwalks.

"It's difficult to draw a line in the sand and defend it," Psuty said. "But the mass of sand from larger beaches and dunes can be a natural barrier that absorbs some of the energy of waves and storm tides and slows the erosion. And if a community feels itself dependent on tourism so that they have to constantly rebuild, then it makes sense for them to be flexible."

The first boardwalk in the United States was built in Atlantic City in the 1870s, said Phillip Correll, the manager of the National Park Service's New Jersey Coastal Heritage Trail Route. And it was not long before the once narrow, removable wooden walkways grew to wide, raised promenades that all but replaced the ocean as the resort's major attraction. They soon snaked their way north up the 127-mile-long New Jersey coast, cropping up like dune grass in one community after another from the turn of the century to the 1920s.

Pub Date: 3/02/97

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