Pulitzer Prize Winner’s New Book  Focuses on Southern Ocean County

‘The Geography of Risk’ Takes on Coastal Development in an Era of Rising Seas
By RICK MELLERUP | Sep 11, 2019

Southern Ocean County — OMG, what almost happened back in 1969!

The Shapiro brothers, Herb and Jerry, are legendary figures in Southern Ocean County. Following in the footsteps of their father, Morris, they had been major players in the development of Long Beach Island and of the bayfront mainland, Beach Haven West to be specific. In 1969 they were at the height of their powers.

Their Beach Haven West project was well on the way to completion, with most of its lagoons dug out and about half of its eventual 4,500 bungalows constructed. But they had a bigger project, a much bigger project, on their minds.

“Dinners Point” was meant to be an all-inclusive waterfront community a few miles south of Beach Haven West stretching into Eagleswood Township. It would have community pools, recreation centers, even its own supermarket. More importantly, it would have 20,000 homes.

True, those homes would be modest, built, as author Gilbert M. Gaul expressed, for “teachers, plumbers, factory workers and other ordinary Americans.” Still, can you imagine the effects of such a development?

Surely its streets would have had to empty out onto Route 9, an already notoriously narrow roadway. In the 1990s and early 2000s, state Sen. and Surf City Mayor Leonard J. Connors Jr. led an effort by the New Jersey 9th District legislative team to widen the busy highway and was basically told by the state that he must be smoking something illegal, that it would cost the Garden State billions of dollars to buy out homeowners and business owners along the narrow route, what with many structures edging within a few feet of the macadam. The Dinners Point development would have created a logjam on the highway that would have been pretty much unimaginable.

To give an idea of the scope of the Shapiros’ plan, Gaul, in his 2019 book The Geography of Risk, says Long Beach Island has some 19,500 homes and businesses. True, LBI is narrow, absurdly narrow in some spots, but it is 18 miles long. The Shapiro brothers were planning to build even more homes in an area a few miles long squeezed between Barnegat Bay and the New Jersey Pinelands.

“It would have been the largest self-contained waterfront development in the country,” Gaul quotes Herb in his book. “It would have everything right there, like a small city.”

Obviously Dinners Point was never constructed. Jerry died of a heart attack in 1969, slowing Herb’s progress. Then in 1970 the New Jersey Legislature and Gov. William Cahill passed the Wetlands Act, what Gaul called “a stringent if belated attempt to control development along the state’s bays and save what remained of the coast wetlands.” The Shapiros had purchased over 5,000 acres of salt marsh on Barnegat Bay before the Wetlands Act, most of which would never be developed and much of which now belongs to the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge.

The tale of the Shapiro brothers is but one example of the decades-long battle between developers of oceanfront and bayfront properties and environmentalists in The Geography of Risk. Gaul, a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who, in “retirement,” has now turned into a book author, was at the Long Beach Island Foundation of the Arts and Sciences for a book signing last Thursday. Perfect timing, considering Hurricane Dorian was front and center in the news.

Wide Coastal Scope,

Southern Ocean Focus

Gaul’s book, 254 pages not including sources, acknowledgments and an index, is a quick but rather thorough read about the dichotomy of coastal development in an era of seemingly increasing danger.

“In the last two decades, hurricanes and coastal storms have caused over three-quarters of a trillion dollars in damage at the coast – far more than earthquakes, tornadoes, and wildfires combined,” he wrote. “That represents a nearly sixfold increase from the prior two decades (1980-1990), as well as most of the hurricane damage in the last century ($725 billion of $1.2 trillion), after adjusting for inflation and population. Alarmingly, the pace of destruction is accelerating, with seventeen of the twenty most expensive hurricanes occurring since 2000. In 2017, Harvey, Maria, and Irma alone accounted for over $300 billion in damage, the single-most expensive hurricane season ever.”

Gaul wrote about many hurricane-prone areas in his book – Galveston and Houston in Texas, Tampa Bay and Miami in Florida, Charleston, S.C., North Carolina’s Outer Banks, New Orleans, Dauphin Island in Alabama (which he called “the unluckiest island in America”) and, rather surprisingly because it wasn’t widely considered in danger from hurricanes until Superstorm Sandy, New York City. But he zoomed in on Long Beach Island and the Southern Ocean County bayside mainland.

Gaul had reached maturity on LBI. Growing up in North Jersey, he had developed a love for surfing and LBI early in his life, serving as a lifeguard for the Beach Haven Beach Patrol for several years and submitting pieces to The SandPaper’s predecessor on the Island, The Beachcomber. He still likes to visit the Island for rounds of surfing, and had followed the development and storms on LBI for decades. So it was a natural focus for his book.

The Geography of Risk is stuffed with names familiar to longtime Southern Ocean County residents – the Shapiro brothers and their father; the late Long Beach Township mayor, Ocean County freeholder and developer Jim Mancini; current LBT Mayor and developer and Jim’s son Joe Mancini; the aforementioned Len Connors; former Congressman Jim Saxton; former Stafford Township Mayor John Spodofora and many others, even Joe Rulli, the owner of the now-defunct branch of Joeys’ Pizza in the flood-prone Beach Haven Crest neighborhood of Long Beach Township, best-known for his sign that proclaimed “occasional waterfront dining.” So it isn’t surprising that The Geography of Risk is a popular read in these parts. The Ocean County Library System has a dozen copies of the book; all were out as of this writing, and 10 more readers had placed a hold.

But, if truth be known, other than the Dinners Point story and a recounting of Morris Shapiro’s early career – how many people know the Shapiro dynasty started with a Lithuanian immigrant and shoe store owner who bought 53 acres of land in the area surrounding the current Acme supermarket for $53,000 in 1926? – Gaul’s book has little new information, at least to longtime residents and readers of The SandPaper.

I’ve been on the paper’s editorial staff for almost 30 years and couldn’t count the number of stories my colleagues and I have written about points discussed by Gaul, such as beach replenishment efforts, new development, the National Flood Insurance Program, real estate prices, hurricanes and northeasters, beach erosion, drainage problems, nuisance flooding, etc. Still, old-timers will find The Geography of Risk can stir memories and new residents and homeowners will be intrigued by the area’s history. Meanwhile, readers in much of the U.S. will be treated to a fine introduction to the problems associated with building – and building and building and building – in flood zones.

Balanced Approach,

Unsettling Conclusion

If The Geography of Risk includes the stories of many Southern Ocean County developers (including Lewis and Isidore Glorsky, who built Little Egg Harbor’s Mystic Island development), it also mentions or quotes another pile of names that are familiar with those who have followed the local developer/environmentalist fight for decades.

I’m talking about the likes of scientists and activists such as Orrin H. Pilkey, Derry Bennett and Norbert P. Psuty, who were often quoted over the years in this newspaper advocating retreat from the coast. Indeed it is Pilkey, a coastal geologist, who is the first person mentioned in Gaul’s book.

“Pilkey is a short, square hobbit of a man, with an unruly gray beard and a disarming sense of humor,” wrote Gaul. “Depending on your point of view, he is either a prophet or the Antichrist of the coast. For more than half a century, he has been churning out scientific papers (more than 250) and books (45 and counting) spotlighting the immeasurable beauty of barrier islands and the illogic of building houses on them. The mayor of a beach town in New Jersey once blurted, ‘I hate him, hate him, hate him’ after Pilkey pointed out that his shoreline was rapidly washing away.”

Gaul, in a fine example of right-down-the-middle journalism, doesn’t openly take sides in his book, which is subtitled “Epic Storms, Rising Seas, and the Cost of America’s Coasts.” But he sort of tipped off a bias in his choice of a quote at the beginning of his book’s introduction.

“‘The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.’ – author unknown.”

The insanity in question is rebuilding in flood-prone areas after hurricanes hit. In fact, developers not only rebuild, but often build anew or at least rebuild bigger. Gaul wrote about that enigma in many places, including Houston, flooded by monumental rains in 2017.

“After Hurricane Harvey flooded Houston and its suburbs in 2017, the Houston Chronicle reported that private-equity and hedge funds were buying up thousands of flood-damaged homes to renovate, flip, and sell at a quick profit. Local officials found themselves competing with investors for flooded properties that they hoped to set aside as open space. ‘All we’re doing is perpetuating a cycle of flooding,’ the flood-control officer for Harris County told the newspaper.”

Gaul’s main point is that this rebuilding can occur only because of the federal government’s involvement. Coastal building – and rebuilding – is possible because Uncle Sam subsidizes homeowners and municipalities through billions of dollars worth of emergency relief, flood insurance subsidies and beach replenishment projects.

Indeed, much of The Geography of Risk is filled with huge numbers – millions and hundreds of millions and billions and hundreds of billions. The numbers can be numbing or worse, instantly forgettable in an era where the federal government is racking up trillion-dollar budget deficits and Americans owe more that $1.5 trillion in student loan debt alone.

A good example can be found in Beach Haven West. Sandy destroyed about $200 million in property values in that Stafford Township neighborhood. But since then Stafford not only made up for that loss, but also added another $200 million in property value to its tax rolls because old and modest Shaprio-era bungalows have been replaced with much larger homes.

“Even (ex-mayor) Spodofora seemed stunned by the changes,” wrote Gaul. “‘Everything is so much bigger,’ he exclaimed one day as we drove around Beach Haven West. ‘The downside is, we’ve lost some of our senior citizens and retirees. The good news is, we have all of this. It’s kind of amazing to me.’”

About 70 percent of Beach Haven West houses, said Gaul, are second homes belonging to absentee owners. And at a national level, that’s what irritates Gaul the most – taxpayers are shelling out huge amounts of money to support the rich owners of second or investment homes.

Perhaps it is insanity. And Gaul couldn’t see any end to the downward spiral. When asked at his book signing event at the LBI Foundation if his book included an optimistic chapter, he couldn’t provide an example.

Retreat from the shore might sound feasible for places like LBI (I’m not advocating it as you will see later, so, please, don’t mail me any anthrax), but come on, Houston or New Orleans or New York City aren’t about to pick up and move. So mayors and governors are going to try to fortify their cities, at least if they can convince Washington, D.C., to help them with billions of dollars. But as Gaul showed, building huge flood gates such as they have in the Netherlands is extremely expensive. And even the Dutch learned that engineering in itself isn’t enough to stop flooding and have started to retreat to create open space to help suck up water.

So Gaul is not optimistic. The only way he sees the build-storm-build-more-another-storm cycle ending is when market forces intervene. Rising seas, he wrote, could depress real estate values.

“One analyst recently likened coastal real estate to junk bonds, the high-yield, high-risk investments popularized by the 1980s financier Michael Milken. Meanwhile, credit ranking agencies such as Moody’s have begun warning coastal communities that a reckoning is coming.”

Gaul was able to offer a current example.

“Homeowners in Corolla, on the northern Outer Banks in North Carolina, are already seeing the economic impacts. The heavily developed vacation resort has flooded repeatedly in the last decade, including in July 2018, when a train of thunderstorms dumped a foot and a half of water over two days. The rains overwhelmed the stormwater system, with some vacationers reporting that the sewers were spilling into the lower floors of their pricey rental properties. County officials allowed a private contractor to pump the foul water into the ocean, warning swimmers to avoid the area.

“‘Property values have plummeted in the past few years,’ a homeowners’ group noted in a July 2017 newsletter. ‘Sales of homes are continuing but at a reduced price.’”

What About

The Little Guy?

Sure, most taxpayers aren’t likely to shed many tears if the federal government were to pull the rug out from under developers and multimillionaire owners of oceanfront second homes. But Gaul didn’t write about the other hundreds and thousands of people who would be hurt if there was a retreat from the shore.

Many a Southern Ocean County contractor and subcontractor made out from Sandy, and their employees racked up overtime and bonuses in the wake of the storm. They were busier than they had been even during the area’s building boom of the 1980s and 1990s, when Ocean County’s population soared from 346,038 to 510,916. Just before I sat down to write this story a man told me of a friend who was ready to declare bankruptcy just before Sandy struck and now is retiring comfortably, thanks to all of the work he had.

Rebuilding from hurricanes is big business, business that actually does trickle down.

Gaul is old enough to remember Woodstock, or at least the movie. So he should remember what Hugh Romney, a.k.a. Wavy Gravy, said from the stage on Yasgur’s farm.

“There’s always a little bit of heaven in a disaster area.”


Comments (1)
Posted by: James Brazel | Sep 12, 2019 13:44

re the Shapiro family:

About ten years ago, a son of the elder Shapiro who, according to your article  bought 53 acres of LBI for $53,000 in 1926, wrote an autobiography.  I read the first chapter or so of it for the background history of his father's LBI real state dealings, but not the rest.

I am mentioning this because I wonder if that also was referenced in Gaul's book.

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