Waterfront Retreat: A Bay Community Faces Rising Seas and Buyouts

Beset by sea level rise and increasing storm damage, most residents of the Delaware Bay community of Money Island have opted to take buyouts from the state and abandon their homes. An e360 video shows that for those who remain, the decision to stay or leave can be agonizing.

When Meghan Wren came to look at a place for sale in 1997 in tiny Money Island, an outpost of several dozen homes on New Jersey’s low-lying and remote Delaware Bay shore, it was love at first sight.

She gazed at the views of bay and creek and salt marsh stretching to the horizons and “without looking inside the house, I signed on the dotted line.”

Over the years, she and husband Jesse Briggs, a tugboat captain, and a son they named Delbay after their new home waters, have upgraded the house with insulation, sustainably harvested wood, geothermal heat, and a composting toilet to replace the septic system that could leak to the creek. It was where she thought she and Jesse would spend the rest of their lives.

Now that is all likely to change. From her deck, Wren points north up the Delaware Bay shore to remnant homes in Bay Point, and beyond that, Sea Breeze — both virtual ghost towns after most residents took buyouts from the state of New Jersey. Soon, Money Island will join them.

As coastal communities everywhere face planning for an accelerating rise in sea level, driven by a warming climate, New Jersey is showing how it can be done — and also showing there’s still much to learn.

Meghan Wren, with her son Delbay and husband Jesse Briggs, on the deck of their Money Island home.

Meghan Wren, with her son Delbay and husband Jesse Briggs, on the deck of their Money Island home. Photo by Dave Harp

Our film about Money Island explores one community’s experience with New Jersey’s Blue Acres Program, designed to end the cycle of using tax dollars to restore flood- and storm-damaged homes, only to leave them at repeated and increasing risk from sea levels projected to rise a couple of feet by mid-century, and several feet by century’s end.

Blue Acres ramped up substantially with federal and state money that followed the state’s disastrous hit seven years ago from Superstorm Sandy. It offers pre-Sandy buyout prices to willing sellers. It is moving closer to its current goal of 1,300 buyouts, with offers made so far to 975 homeowners, statewide. Seven hundred have accepted, and 640 homes have been demolished and removed.

Blue Acres is generally well-regarded, despite having to operate until recently under an administration (of Governor Chris Christie) that did not acknowledge climate change. But it is not without adverse impacts on both residents and struggling rural economies like Cumberland County, which includes Money Island and is the poorest of New Jersey’s 21 counties. Money Island’s name derives from buried treasure legends, not actual wealth.

Wren and her family are reluctantly leaning toward leaving. She concedes the buyout from Blue Acres they are contemplating “makes sense on the intellectual side and the financial side because we have everything we own wrapped up in this place and it’s not going to build equity…” But leaving is wrenching, and there’s little chance they will get enough to afford anything comparable in the area that would not be at risk from rising sea levels and flooding.

Coming home to Money Island, Wren says, is “like this Zen, a five-mile final stretch through the tidal Delaware Bay salt marshes after you pass the last trees.” This low-lying nature of the bay shore is both its charm and its peril.

“Tidal” and “tide” are concepts to most of us; rise and fall, in and out. But on the Delaware Bay an inch of rise can send the water a thousand feet inland; and tide becomes the rhythm of your life, dictating comings and goings and getting to the school bus as the only roadways submerge. Wren has lost two cars to the tides, and once slept in her car at a marina, having waited too long to head home.

A founder and manager of non-profit environmental groups, Wren has gone back to college to pursue a degree in community and environmental planning for places like the Delaware Bay shore.

She wonders whether there can’t be better solutions than what her family’s going through. The wildlife of the bay shore is magnificent, she says — egrets, eagles, kingfishers, horseshoe crabs coming ashore to spawn. But she feels as strongly about the region’s unique human communities — oyster dredgers, crab potters, fishermen: all landing their catches and tying their workboats in view of her living room window.

“It’s an incredibly rich, biodiverse ecosystem, but without people it’s losing its character, its history,” she says over coffee one summer morning. “I think it’s important to stay here and continue taking care of, appreciating, and celebrating the resources that are here… I think buyouts are wrapped up in the issues of environmental justice. They’re targeting communities that have lower property values and the people that have less wherewithal to argue.”

Wren and other residents of the Delaware Bay shore point to a glaring disparity in New Jersey – the hundreds of millions of dollars, the bulk of it federal, that have been pumped into protecting the state’s vastly more populated and affluent Atlantic coast after Sandy wrecked more than a third of a million New Jersey homes.

The huge tax base and ocean tourism economy of the “Jersey Shore” in a sense made it almost too big to fail, state officials acknowledge, even as they concede the new beaches and dunes, pumped up from offshore sand, and rock and concrete fortifications built there are not a long-term solution.

The tax base, or “rateables” as the state calls it, is relatively tiny on the bay shore; but tax base losses from Blue Acres buyouts have been “a disaster for us,” says Robert Campbell, mayor of Downe Township, which includes Money Island. The township lies in Cumberland County, which has development along less than four of its 40 miles of coastline and is the poorest of the state’s 21 counties.

Flooding on Money Island in December 2018. Several of these houses were torn down as part of Blue Acres Program just months later.

Flooding on Money Island in December 2018. Several of these houses were torn down as part of Blue Acres Program just months later. Courtesy of Meghan Wren

“The state really needs to have more equity in its programs,” Wren says, “where the communities that are providing open space to all New Jersey residents ought to get paid for those services. I mean Downe Township has the largest contiguous old growth forest in the northeastern U.S.”

It’s complicated. Blue Acres managers note that once communities are removed the land remains in public access. Ecotourism and recreation can boost local economies.

But for Mayor Campbell, a climate skeptic, the solution would be to seek big new investments in developing the Delaware Bay shore, on the theory that these would then have to be protected from flooding and storms.

One place near Money Island, the community of Gandy’s Beach, is getting millions for new sewage treatment. But a visit to Gandy’s, as high tide rolls waves beneath most of the homes, makes one think that buyouts would be a lot smarter.

Tom Horton

About the Filmmakers:

Tom Horton has covered the environment for newspapers and magazines since 1972 and has authored several books on Chesapeake Bay. He currently writes for the monthly Bay Journal and teaches at Salisbury University in Maryland.

Sandy Cannon-Brown, founder and president of VideoTakes, Inc., is an award-winning environmental filmmaker and teacher. She was an associate director for American University’s Center for Environmental Filmmaking. She lives in St. Michaels, Maryland and focuses her independent films on issues affecting the Chesapeake Bay.

A lifelong Marylander, Dave Harp operates a corporate and editorial photography business in Cambridge, Maryland. He served as the staff photographer for the Hagerstown Morning Herald and was the photographer for The Baltimore Sun Magazine for nearly a decade.