Citing Costs, Highlands Rejects Flood Wall Project

April 19, 2017
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By John Burton

HIGHLANDS – A flood wall construction project off Highlands’ shores has hit its own wall with the majority of the Borough Council rejecting the proposal.

The council, in a 3-2 vote at its public meeting on April 6, declined to participate in the project being drafted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that would have erected a flood wall along most of the borough’s bay shore frontage in an attempt to mitigate the impact from storm events for the flooding-prone community.

The corps’ plans, with the study still uncompleted, would entail building a wall made of steel sheet pile capped with concrete that would block much of the low-lying borough property from the Raritan and Sandy Hook bays which surround much of the community. Mayor Rick O’Neil said the proposal called for the wall to run from Popamora Point, a park area bordering Atlantic Highlands to the north, and extend along the waterfront on Bay Avenue to Veterans Park, with plans for a flood gate at the southern end of Bay Avenue. “It was a bulkhead, basically running the entire length of the town,” said O’Neil, with the project including other mitigation components.

The wall would have an elevation of 14 feet, said Jason Shea, project planner for the Army Corps of Engineers’ New York District. The total costs of the project were estimated at approximately $120 million, with the bulk of it paid by federal dollars. The money was allocated from the federal 2013 Sandy Relief appropriations, totaling $5.34 billion, to address the impact Super Storm Sandy had on areas from Maine to Virginia in October 2012.

The state, through the Shore Protection Program, and the borough would be responsible for 35 percent of the project total, with the state picking up 75 percent of that 35 percent share. In the case of this project, Highlands would have been expected to contribute 8.75 percent of the project, or approximately $20 million.

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At that price, said Borough Councilman Doug Card, “It was fiscally irresponsible. We simply can’t afford it.”

Card was one of the three council members to voice their opposition to the project, saying, “We don’t have the financial means to pay for it.” Card is also skeptical of the numbers, suspecting the final cost would be considerably higher. “Let’s face reality. Anyone who’s been in construction, add 20 percent on top of that (price tag).” In his final analysis, Card said, “It’s not going to stop the flooding.”

O’Neil and Councilwoman Rebecca Kane-Wells both wanted to seek an extension from the corps to gain additional information given the corps’ study is only about 30 percent complete at this time; and to see about mounting a voter referendum for the November election to gauge public support. “I think for the most part, people wanted more information,” O’Neil said.

Some of the opposition to the project, the mayor charged, came from waterfront property owners, some of whom don’t live in the community, fearful the project would negatively impact the water view and their property values.

“The sea wall was to keep the storm out,” O’Neil said, explaining it is intended as a fix-all, the borough would still have to take additional measures to address flooding. O’Neil said Highlands is planning capital projects aimed at drainage, such as constructing more pump stations, among other efforts.

Some of those municipal efforts, O’Neil maintained, likely wouldn’t be necessary if the federal and state project moved forward.

Kane-Wells said, referring to the corps, “I think we should go back to the table and try and reconfigure things and work with them a little more.”

The Army Corps of Engineers has yet to be officially notified of the governing body’s vote rejecting the plan and hasn’t heard from the state Department of Environmental Protection, either, Shea said.

“Believe me, I certainly understand the dilemma they face,” Shea acknowledged about Highlands and the cost to the community. However, Shea, added, “They just need to decide to accept flooding in the future or adapt and change their water front.”

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“Whether we have local support or not we’re still going to complete the study,” Shea said, probably sometime early this summer.

The next step for the federal agency is, Shea concluded, “We’re going to talk to them to figure out a path forward.”

The Army Corps of Engineers had constructed a similar structure, along with levees, in Keansburg in the early 1960s, as flood mitigation measures, according to Shea.

In Middletown’s Port Monmouth section on the eastern side of Route 36, wall and levees construction is currently underway and plans are in the works for another project to move for ward in Union Beach. The Union Beach project is anticipated to begin by year’s end and take about three and a half years, the same amount of time the Highlands project would have taken, according to Shea.

Card pointed out that those projects also involved beach replenishment work as another mitigation component, something that was not applicable for much of Highlands.

The Highlands project was first proposed in 1990 to address the borough’s long-standing flooding issue, especially in the Bay Avenue area, and again in 2003. Due to lack of support locally, the study stalled, according to the corps.

Fast forward to October 2012, when Super Storm Sandy wreaked havoc with the much of the Jersey Shore, hitting Union Beach, Sea Bright and Highlands particularly hard.

According to the corps, 1,200 out of 1,500 structures were damaged from Sandy, with many of them destroyed, requiring demolition.

In information provided by the corps, the East Coast sea level is expected to rise 0.7 feet over the next 50 years, contributing to coastal flooding.

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