SpeakEasy

I Should Have Been a Millionaire – Missed Opportunities on LBI

By GLORIA C. ENDRES | Oct 09, 2019
Courtesy of: Gloria Endres The author’s grandfather, Guiseppe De Sanctis, relaxes on the Beach Haven boardwalk in the 1930s. The bayside property in the borough he let go for taxes in the 1960s is cause for regret today.

Over the years I have written articles in the SandPaper that mention how my maternal Italian grandparents, Virginia Gargani and Giuseppe De Sanctis, came to this country, married and eventually found their way by train to Long Beach Island. There they saw an opportunity to buy two plots of cheap land side by side in the humble town of Beach Haven. This was years before my parents, Mary and Nick Cipollini, were married in 1939 and my twin brother, Danny, and I were born in 1940. So I am guessing that it must have been during the Great Depression when almost everything was undervalued.

My grandparents, who were skilled custom shoemakers, always found work even then, so they had capital to invest. My adventurous and gorgeous grandmother, Virginia, was especially eager to buy property. She was planning an inheritance to leave her descendants. She even made sure to buy two of everything including houses in the Philadelphia area so she could leave one to each of her two children, Mary and Tony. However, since her widowed son died childless and intestate, the final inheritance went to my mother and eventually to my brother and me.

As I have also mentioned before, as children, during part of our annual visits to the Island with my grandparents and parents, they would show Danny and me their two adjacent weed-filled lots on the bayside of Beach Haven. Whether it was a combination of zoning restrictions, personal finances or fear of those great storms that could reduce Beach Haven to rubble, they never built anything on those lots. It was just considered an investment for the future. Hah!

After my grandmother passed away in the early 1960s, when I was in my early 20s, an underpaid teacher and still living at home, my grandfather, then in his 90s, could not even think of managing that land, so he let both lots go for taxes. That is a process called “the law of adverse possession.” It means that someone can pay taxes on tax-delinquent property and eventually become the legal owner.

At this point in the story, I seriously suggest that my readers hold on to something. Grandpop relinquished ownership of both Beach Haven lots for a total of $700 in delinquent taxes. I will spell it for you so you do not think it is a typographical error: seven hundred dollars. For two vacant lots. In Beach Haven. $350 each. (It is OK to breathe.)

As I said, during those early years when my grandparents still owned those lots, Island real estate in general was inexpensive and rentals low. I have written before how my family could rent a room at a boarding house for just $3 a night. Yes, that is spelled three dollars. Once during the middle 1950s, my parents and I even stayed at a small bayside cottage with a slanted loft, rented to us by a family friend for a week for less than $100. At that time, as I recall, the Island was mostly small bungalows, cottages, shacks, Victorian hotels, a couple of churches, open air markets here and there, and mile after mile of sand dunes culminating in Barnegat Light.

All that has changed dramatically. This past May I came across an opinion column in the Philadelphia Inquirer by that paper’s former reporter Gilbert M. Gaul, who has written a book, The Geography of Risk: Epic Storms, Rising Seas and the Cost of America’s Coasts, published in September by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. He describes the many changes in real estate on Long Beach Island since his youth when he could get a job as a Beach Haven lifeguard and rent a surf shack with friends for the whole summer for less than $200 each.

In his commentary, Gaul compares past and present in terms of land value and population changes as a result of natural disasters, a changing economy and the rise of wealthy ownership of real estate. He describes, for example, the size of an average bungalow on LBI in the 1960s as 600 square feet, but by the time of Superstorm Sandy, the size had advanced to about 3,000 square feet. Newer homes are supersized and super expensive.

The value of Island property has soared in spite of a history of violent hurricanes like the Great Atlantic Hurricane of 1944 or the devastating Sandy of 2012. According to Gaul, the 18-mile-long shoreline of LBI holds $15 billion worth of property with the average house costing a staggering $1.1 million. To rent a house for a week can cost about $5,000.

See, I remember a time when most houses were tiny. I also recall motels, like the Sans and the Engleside in Beach Haven, where my husband, Stan, our daughter, Claire, and I could spend an affordable week. Since his passing in 2010, I have attempted only day trips accompanied by my lovely daughter and, this summer, my little grandson.

Speaking of children, Gaul describes the declining year-round population on the Island, because, of course, only the rich can afford to live here. According to the1980 census, LBI lost half its population. Employers have to use federal visas to hire enough summer workers to staff lifeguard stands, restaurants, hotels, etc. I recall one time being at the shore and all the staff we met were students from Ireland. Another time they all were Hispanic.

And what of the future? Beach erosion, storms and construction all continue to reshape the land. No matter how high they build and shape the dunes, the ocean continues to rise due to global warming. Barrier islands like LBI could be at risk over the next several hundred years due to a rising Atlantic. Even so, if you want your house to withstand any act of nature now or in the near future, you have to spend more on stronger construction materials. That explains partly why prices have gone up. And that explains why very rich investors are the primary owners. In Gaul’s piece, he describes the typical homeowner as a “hedge-fund manager, Wall Street financier, or high tech executive.”

So imagine my feelings, thinking back to those simpler times when land was inexpensive enough for blue collar workers to buy a couple of lots in the middle of Beach Haven. At the time of that old tax delinquency, neither my mother nor her brother cared about procuring the land. If only my late brother and I had had the foresight to obtain ownership of those lots at $350 apiece, lots no one else in the family was interested in possessing. I can only imagine what the new owner did with them, and what they must be worth today.

All I know is that I missed my chance to be a Long Beach Island millionaire. Who knew?

Gloria C. Endres lives in South Philadelphia and is a lifelong visitor to LBI.

 

 

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