Back to the Jersey Shore
With beaches replenished, boardwalks rebuilt and stores reopened, theJersey Shore is gearing up for a summer busy enough to make last year’s anemic one a distant memory.
As renters rush to book their summer houses and buyers snatch up newly vacant land, a different Jersey Shore is taking shape one and a half years after Hurricane Sandy, one in which the small working-class bungalows that once defined communities like Ortley Beach are being replaced with spacious dream homes intended to entice wealthy vacationers.
Warnings of climate change and rising sea levels have done little to deter buyers who see opportunity in disaster. For some, the storm-tossed shore is a blank canvas, awaiting new construction that could redefine the look and feel of the coastline. Others, in the market for a safer bet on the beach, are zeroing in on areas that emerged relatively unscathed. In short, Hurricane Sandy hit the reset button on the Jersey Shore.
“At the end of the day, we’re going to be in a better spot,” said Eric J. Birchler, the owner of Birchler Realtors, which sells properties in Ortley Beach and Lavallette, two of the hardest hit areas. “You just stepped the entire gentrification of Ortley Beach forward five years because everything had to be rebuilt.”
Soon after Hurricane Sandy destroyed the vacation house and seasonal business of Chris Marino and Joanne de França-Marino in Lavallette, the couple began putting their lives back together. At first they planned to rebuild their 2,500-square-foot house across the street from the bay. But then they saw a listing for a nearby 12,000-square-foot parcel on a cove with 180 feet of bulkhead on the bay.
Before the storm, the property had been listed for $1.898 million. But the Marinos bought it in March for $999,000. They plan to tear down the existing 1,600-square-foot brick house and invest about $1 million in a 4,200-square-foot, two-and a-half-story replacement. Outside will be a gazebo and an in-ground pool.
“It’s a phenomenal buying opportunity,” said Mr. Marino, whose family has been summering on the Jersey Shore for generations. “It’s one of the largest bulkheads on the whole island.”
As for the home the storm destroyed, the couple will replace it with a five-bedroom house with 2,800 square feet that they plan to sell for about $900,000. Ms. de França-Marino hopes to reopen her home décor store, the Beach Home, at a new location in Lavallette in time for the Memorial Day rush.
Of the 127 miles of New Jersey coastline that spans four counties from Cape May in the south to Monmouth County in the north, Hurricane Sandy hit Ocean and Monmouth counties the hardest. In all, the storm destroyed or damaged 346,000 homes in New Jersey.
But Sandy was not evenhanded in her wrath. While whole blocks in Ortley Beach were leveled, neighboring Midway Beach, replete with the very same style of bungalows, survived largely intact. While the handsome seaside mansions of Mantoloking were gutted, nearby Bay Head fared much better. Many people credit protective armor like sand dunes and sea walls for providing critical cover.
Rebuilding in a high-hazard area is not cheap. If a house was destroyed or sustained substantial damage, it must be rebuilt to local floodplain requirements, which in the most risky areas can require costly measures like elevating the house on pilings or columns.
Other protections include hurricane-proof windows and breakaway walls, which are exterior walls designed to collapse during a severe storm without causing damage to the elevated part of the house or to the foundation. Homeowners with federally backed mortgages must also buy flood insurance, which can be expensive. Owners who can’t afford the flood insurance premiums or who can’t afford to rebuild to these standards are selling.
“This is now an opportunity to build bigger homes and they are certainly going to have to build them at a higher elevation and it’s going to cost more,” said Peter S. Reinhart, the director of the Kislak Real Estate Institute at Monmouth University. “I think we’re going to lose some of that blue-collar flavor in the area.”
For Ortley Beach homeowners like John and Gina McConeghy, Hurricane Sandy closed a chapter on their lives. After the storm flooded their 800-square-foot bungalow with 22 inches of water, the couple ripped it down to the frame. But without flood insurance, they could not afford the $400,000 it would have cost to rebuild to floodplain requirements. So last February, the couple sold their property with views of the bay for $200,000.
“When you’re down there and it’s a nice day and the sun’s out, and you hear the ocean, you’re going to miss it,” said Mr. McConeghy, a 54-year-old contractor who lives in Wayne, N.J. “But it became a business decision. I’m not in the financial position to pay that kind of money for a summer home that I only use a few months out of the year.”
Prices for waterfront property in hard-hit areas plunged after the storm, largely because of damage to houses. Suddenly, towns where land was rarely available, like Mantoloking, had listings. Of waterfront homes that sold in the area between November 2012 and June 2013, the median selling price dropped 34 percent from the same time period a year earlier, according to an analysis of listings data by Tom Wissel, Multiple Listing Service coordinator for the Ocean County Board of Realtors.
Buyers who had previously been priced out of the market may now be able to get a foothold in a town like Mantoloking, where a house with 70 feet of footage on the ocean sold for $3.75 million before the storm. After the storm, a similar lot with more than double the oceanfront footage sold for $2.75 million.
In Lavallette, bayside lots that listed for $550,000 before the storm now list for $400,000. And in Ortley Beach, bayside lots that listed for $350,000 before the storm now list for $200,000, according to Birchler Realtors.
“People are starting to say, ‘Hold it, I’m going to miss out on this,’ ” said Shawn Clayton, the owner of Clayton & Clayton Realtors, which sells properties in Mantoloking and Bay Head. “ ‘Let me get my financing together so I don’t miss out.’ ”
Much of the area has been transformed into a construction zone. Drive along the oceanfront in Mantoloking and scores of stately houses are covered in Tyvek sheeting or are raised off their foundations.
In Ortley Beach, whole blocks have been reduced to sandy lots punctuated by the occasional framing for a new house. But other communities look pristine, with shops, homes and boardwalks largely restored.
Since last July, Mr. Clayton’s office has sold eight oceanfront properties, about one a month. Before Sandy, his company generally sold five such properties a year. Most buyers are tearing down what exists and building large elevated houses according to the stricter guidelines and adding elevators, swimming pools and walls of windows.
Paul J. Scriffignano, 32, is one such buyer. He has been summering on the Jersey Shore since childhood. After his parents’ house in Brick was damaged by Sandy, Mr. Scriffignano began spending more time in the area helping his family recover.
Last summer, he and his wife, Alexandra, 28, bought a property in Normandy Beach. They plan to tear down the existing house because of its condition and small size, and to replace it with a three-story 3,100-square-foot home built on pilings with a hurricane-proof roof and windows, five bedrooms and a swimming pool.
“I don’t know if a storm like this is ever going to happen again, but I have a lot of friends and family here,” said Mr. Scriffignano, whose sister and brother-in-law bought a vacation home in Curtis Point last summer. “It’s almost like we wanted to band together and say, ‘We don’t want to give up on this area. Whatever happens, happens.’ ”
Buyers may be experiencing a renewed confidence in the Jersey Shore, but scientists point out that areas like the barrier islands are increasingly vulnerable to coastal flooding as sea levels rise. The New York City Panel on Climate Change estimates that by the 2020s New York City could be beset by 2 to 11 inches of sea level rise. And by the 2050s — a little longer than the length of a 30-year mortgage — the sea could rise by as much as 31 inches.
Barrier islands like Long Beach face another challenge: they sit on top of sediment that is slowly compacting, causing them to sink. As the sea level rises, the risk of coastal flooding increases even in a moderate storm.
“The people who are making these decisions are taking some real risk,” said Ben Strauss, the director of the Program on Sea Level Rise at Climate Central, a group that studies the effects of climate change. “I hope that they are viewing it with their eyes open.”
Flooding is already a chronic problem in New Jersey, and some wonder if allowing homeowners to rebuild in high-risk areas is good public policy. In the past nine years, the state has had 11 separate flooding events that have been severe enough to trigger a presidential disaster declaration. Yet the state remains committed to rebuilding rather than encouraging homeowners in flood-prone areas to relocate to higher ground.
Since Sandy, New Jersey has provided homeowners with grant money to rebuild and has invested in infrastructure in flood-prone areas, like the new Route 35, which was breached during Sandy and is being rebuilt to withstand a 25-year storm, a $265 million project.
“We, as a state, need to start getting it. This is our fate,” said John A. Miller, a water resource engineer and the legislative committee chairman for theNew Jersey Association for Floodplain Management. “We have to start adapting because this is going to happen again.”
The Jersey Shore is integral to the state’s economy and to its identity. Tourism accounts for nearly 7 percent of the state’s economy and half of the $40 billion-a-year tourism industry comes from the Shore. For people whose families have strolled the boardwalks for years, walking away is simply unimaginable.
But a future with rising sea levels “is where reality meets the romance of the coast,” said Robert W. Freudenberg, the New Jersey director of the Regional Plan Association. “You want to be there, you want a piece of that, but if the reality is a future of evacuations and flooding, it puts a damper on that romance.”
Last summer, the first in Hurricane Sandy’s wake, offered a glimpse of what evacuations and flooding can look like for the tourism industry. By the time the season opened, many boardwalks had been rebuilt and stores were ready for business, yet tourists were slow to arrive. Since vacationers typically book summer rentals in the winter, it appeared that many had decided to vacation elsewhere. A cool and wet spring only further dampened enthusiasm. Restaurants, shops and beaches were quiet, particularly in June and July.
Of the homes damaged or destroyed in the storm, 15,600 were rental properties. A report on the economic impact of tourism estimates that 10 percent of seasonal properties in Ocean, Atlantic and Monmouth Counties were damaged. For areas that were heavily damaged, summer 2013 was bleak. In Lavallette, summer rentals were down 60 percent and in Ortley Beach, they were down 97 percent, according to Birchler Realtors.
“If you were going on vacation, would you want to go to a spot that had been pretty devastated and you had to commit to a rental in January?” said Joseph Feudi, 54, who struggled last summer to rent his vacation home in Loveladies on Long Beach Island.
But by August, day-trippers and last minute vacationers returned to the Shore, making up for much of the lost revenue. Both Cape May County and Monmouth County came out ahead. And in Ocean County, tourism sales ultimately dropped by only 2.3 percent, according to a report by Tourism Economics.
Already, summer 2014 is looking brighter as vacationers plan beach getaways after a particularly harsh winter. On the website HomeAway.com, inquiries for North Jersey Shore summer rentals are up 66 percent from the same time last year, according to the company.
“What I’m hearing from everybody is the tourists are coming and we better be ready for them,” said Robert Hilton, the executive director of the Jersey Shore Convention and Visitors Bureau.
To some extent, Hurricane Sandy created a barometer of risk: a town or property that survived the storm sets wary buyers at ease. Less than a year after the storm, Pier Village, a beachfront community in Long Branch where little damage occurred, began selling condominiums near the water. Now, 70 percent of the 44 units have sold, with prices for remaining units ranging from $439,000 for a two-bedroom to $698,000 for a three-bedroom with a den. The condo is a short walk from shops and restaurants as well as the beach.
“Almost everyone asks about the storm,” said Dawn Nassaney, the sales manager for 55 Melrose Terrace at Pier Village. “If we came through Sandy unscathed, that’s a huge selling point.”
And on Long Beach Island, Ellen and Bob Farrell spent years searching, but had not been able to find a turnkey property for less than $1 million. It wasn’t until after the storm that they finally found one: a 2,600-square-foot clapboard house with wood floors throughout, an open floor plan and an updated kitchen just a block from the beach in Surf City. The Farrells bought it on Halloween for $723,000.
“With all the devastation that went on, there is no time like the present,” Ms. Farrell, 50, said. “Sandy was a reality check for a lot of people, especially for us. We felt like we really need to step back and enjoy our lives.”