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Rural NJ communities hope sewer project will anchor them in place

DOWNE TOWNSHIP, NJ – There are no neon lights, no boardwalk, and entertainment includes the constant lapping of Delaware Bay waves and the occasional sight of a thousand snow geese flying over salt marshes like windswept clouds.

For the roughly 1,500 people who live in this rural community in Cumberland County, 60 miles south of Philadelphia, life without a traffic light is just how they like it. But many of Downe’s unincorporated communities, like the centuries-old fishing villages of Fortescue and Money Island, and the unique road of bayside homes on Gandy Beach, were battered by Hurricane Irene and the super Hurricane Sandy.

A few dozen Money Island homeowners have sold their properties to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection in the wake of those storms, and more are negotiating to do the same. Once the DEP razes these homes, the properties will essentially return to nature. That’s what happened in Seabreeze, a ghost town just north of Downe, where all the houses have disappeared.

“That won’t happen here. We won’t let him,” Downe Township Mayor Mike Rothman said aboard his fishing boat in Fortescue recently.

Rothman and former mayor Robert Campbell believe their long-held dream – to replace septic tanks and propane tanks with sewer lines and natural gas – will be a bulwark against the forces of nature and a refutation of those who think the people of Downe should pull back from the coast and move inland. The project finally materializes for Fortescue and Gandy beach, and Campbell thinks the consistency and cost advantages of modern infrastructure could increase property values ​​and attract new businesses like hotels and restaurants.

“Honestly, I would love to see an ice cream parlor,” said Campbell, now a committee member at Downe. “There’s no place to get an ice cream cone in Fortescue.”

The sewer project, which could go to tender in the coming months, has been under discussion for a decade and is estimated to cost $15 million. The Township of Downe received a $4.49 million grant from the United States Department of Agriculture in 2019 for construction costs. About $11 million of the project is funded by grants, Campbell said, and the rest could be funded if more grants aren’t available. The treatment plant will be built on the site of a former Fortescue shipyard purchased by the township.

Campbell said there had been a few “naysayers” but estimated 99% of the public was on board.

“There are always people who don’t want any change,” he said.

When the USDA grant was announced in 2019, Jeff Tittel, the now retired manager of the New Jersey Sierra Club, writes opinion pieces denouncing the project as a way to usher in unnecessary development in one of the state’s most unique and fragile landscapes.

“I always feel that way,” Tittel said recently.

New Jersey’s waterfront, Tittel said, is on the front lines of climate change and rising sea levels, prone to constant flooding and major storms. He thinks people should be slowly withdrawing from communities like Fortescue and Gandy’s Beach, not building infrastructure there.

“We shouldn’t invest in places like this,” he said, “because they might not be there in 50 years. They could be underwater.

Rothman and Campbell say defeatism, not climate change, is the real threat to Downe Township.

“We’ve got the same flooding we’ve always had,” Campbell said. “It’s mother nature.”

Jane Morton Galetto, Chair of the Board of Directors of Citizens united to protect the Mauritius River and its tributaries, said Downe’s sewer project is preferable to the current situation, where the state of each property’s septic system can vary widely. Communities like Fortescue are cultural anchors, Morton Galetto said, as important to Downe and New Jersey as any natural resources in the township.

“We’re not a historical society, but we have a great appreciation for people’s place in the landscape,” she said while touring Downe Township recently.

Fortescue has been a tourist attraction since the 1800s, accessible by buggy and boat. Hotels, dance halls and beachside shacks rose and fell like the tides, sometimes set on fire or swept away by storms. The city is still known as the “weak fish capital of the world”, after the once plentiful fish that populated the water and the plates.

Rothman, who owns a fishing boat he docks in Fortescue, said he takes almost as many birdwatchers on cruises these days as he does fishermen.

Some homes in Downe’s waterfront communities are vacant or in poor condition, but officials believe that will change once sewer lines reach every property. Real estate sales are already increasing in Fortescue and Gandy’s Beach, Rothman said, and some agents have mentioned the infrastructure project in their listings. It is possible to buy a house by the water in Fortescue for less than $300,000.

“I don’t think we’ll see the full impact for a year or two,” said Donald Sullivan, a Vineland real estate agent, “but I’ve sold a few properties before where the buyer assumed it was going to happen. It’s been part of the agreement.

Fortescue has a few restaurants, summer-only vendors, and of course a bait shop. There are a handful of homes available on Airbnb in Downe and four bedrooms in the Charlesworth Hotel and Restaurant, a waterfront steak and seafood establishment built in 1924. Rothman said a potential buyer is interested in building a 100-room hotel on the current site of a waterfront campground.

Charlesworth owner Syboll said he was spending $2,000 a month on his septic system and was eager for the sewer project to get underway.

“Actually, I’ll take a shovel and help them if they need it,” he said.

Rothman said no sewer project will change the bucolic nature of Downe Township. Most of its land consists of inland farms, protected open space, and large areas owned by non-profit organizations such as the Nature Conservancy and Natural Lands Trust. Their bayside communities serve a different crowd than the millions who travel to the Jersey Shore each summer.

“There may be development but, at the end of the day, it’s still Fortescue,” he said. “It will never be Wildwood or Cape May. We are proud of nature. That’s why people will come here.