Highlands, Feds Reopen Talks of Unpopular Floodwall

February 1, 2018
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The existing bulkhead along Marine Place in Highlands, which is the source of controversy around a proposed $120 million floodwall project in the downtown.

By Jay Cook |

HIGHLANDS – One of the last Jersey Shore towns still recovering from Super Storm Sandy made strides earlier this month to revisit a contentious $120-million flood wall project which riled residents last year.

Councilmembers Rosemary Ryan and Ken Braswell told residents at the Jan. 17 borough council meeting they had met with U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone (D-6) and representatives from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) on Jan. 12 to reopen stalled talks about constructing an unpopular flood wall.

After a discussion, the council decided it would allow the USACE to come into Highlands and finish its feasibility study for the plan, which was abruptly halted in 2017.

“My opinion is that completing the feasibility study, no strings attached, is no issue to the town,” Ryan said.

A floodwall for Highlands is a significant project, said Jason Shea, a senior planner with USACE’s New York District. Highlands is the only town in the post-Sandy era to deny one of the federal flood mitigation proposals, he said.

“If you want to reduce the risk of a large-scale flooding, this is what you need,” Shea said, adding, “The risk is their town being basically wiped out again.”

Approximately 1,200 homes in the low-lying, bayside borough were demolished in Sandy’s wake, leaving homeowners to rebuild and raise many, if not all, of those properties. Shea said this project is the best plan to protect Highlands from another Sandy-like event, which was considered a 190-year storm.

According to planning documents, the floodwall would be a 10,700-foot-long wall made of steel sheet pile capped with concrete, with a maximum elevation of 14 feet. It would span from the new Sandy Hook Bay Marina east to Veterans Memorial Park on Bay Avenue and would include raising up and replacing the existing bulkheads along the waterfront at varying heights. At the eastern end of Bay Avenue, a 1-by-55-foot closure gate would be built across the roadway.

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The total project cost is currently $120 million, with 65 percent being paid for by the federal government, allocated through $5.34 billion in Sandy relief appropriations.

The remaining 35 percent, or $42 million, would be covered by the state, the county and the municipality.

According to Ryan, the cost to Highlands is $5.2 million. The borough could either pay that over a four- to six-year span, or take out a no-interest, 20-year loan from the state. In that case, Highlands would pay the state government $260,000 annually for two straight decades. Braswell said the impact to taxpayers would be 8.75 cents per $100 of equalized home value.

In April of last year, the borough council voted outright to deny the project as it stood. They cited cost concerns, no answers to the downtown tidal flooding issues and the clear impact any wall would have on sightlines to the Shrewsbury River and Sandy Hook Bay, two of Highlands’ most important assets.

“I want a scale of the town and to see exactly what this is going to do,” councilwoman Carolyn Broullon said. “It’s the only way you’re going to know what it looks like and we’re going to know what it looks like.”

Shea, who grew up in Highlands, said residents have legitimate concerns about what the floodwall would do to the downtown. For homeowners who privately own bulkheads, he said the federal government would pay for easements to build the wall. Residents can still use them to access the waterfront, but the state would operate and maintain them.

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With a 14-foot elevation, access would be similar to the seawall along Ocean Avenue in Sea Bright and Monmouth Beach where stairs are used to traverse the wall, he said. Though in Highlands’ case, it would not be nearly as high.

“There’s definitely impacts to their view, access would be different if they have access to the docks or beach over the wall,” Shea said. “But we want to maintain that access.”

The Highlands floodwall is one of three projects either planned or in construction in the Bayshore. In Union Beach, a $211-million project began last February and is expected to take years to finish. Like Highlands, it will be paid by a split of federal and state dollars.

A $105-million flood mitigation project in the Port Monmouth section of Middletown with widened beaches and tide gates is in its second phase of construction. Unlike Highlands and Union Beach, it is being paid for completely by federal dollars, Shea said. That project was technically in the construction phase when Sandy hit and the federal government was tasked with paying for all projects in that situation, he said.

Regardless of the other projects, a big decision is looming for Highlands and its 5,000 residents.

“If you want to reduce the risk of a large-scale flooding, this is what you need,” Shea said.

This article was first published in the Jan. 25-Feb. 1, 2018 print edition of The Two River Times.

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