Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Sea Bright and the Sea Wall

Take a look at this amazing socio-technical artifact:

it's a "walkover," that enables homeowners in Sea Bright, NJ to traverse the eight-foot seawall that separates the town from the beach. I say "homeowners" and not "the public" because with just a few exceptions, these walkovers are privately-owned, and useable only by adjacent homeowners.

Way back when, the seawall was built to protect a railroad. When the railroad was dismantled, the state was offered the railroad's right-of way but refused to take it. The interest in the land was instead acquired by adjacent landowners, who also negotiated some sort of easement that would enable them to legally cross the seawall in order to access the ocean (which used to come right up to the seawall but is now separated by about 100 feet of sand that is the product of an ongoing $27 million nourishment project).

But with the nourishment came stricter requirements for public beach access. (As we mentioned in a previous post, access to New Jersey's beaches is protected by the PUBLIC TRUST DOCTRINE, but this doctrine doesn't always result in meaningful access, owning to the lack of paths, parking, etc.) In this case, a parking lot was built in the former railroad right-of-way, but no walkovers were built, making the gesture an empty one. Following a lawsuit led by the Littoral Society, the state DEP agreed to build four walkovers, but they built these where there was no parking, making this gesture empty too.

The Littoral Society came to the rescue again when the homeowners starting building walkover / patio deck hybrids (shown in the picture above). The problem was that while the homeowners had a right to build the walkovers over the seawall, they also had to respect the public's right to walk uninterrupted along the top of the seawall; the patio deck component they built on the seawall blocked this path. That opening you can see on the patio deck to the left? Those came out of the Littoral Society's threat to again sue. As a result of the Society's actions, the patio decks have to remain open, so that the public can effectively walkover the walkovers.

The story could end there but according to someone more familiar with these issues than us, there's a new chapter in the walkover wars: new, souped-up labyrinth walkovers that obscure the seawall path through the walkover and only enable members of the public to traverse them with difficulty (we hope to make it back there one day to document these).

Sea Bright--a thin sliver of a barrier island--is notorious for shirking their responsibility to provide beach access. In 2006, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection sued the town and the nine beach clubs lining the 1.5 mile stretch for failing to carry out an agreement to improve public access after a 2003 beach replenishment project. The settlement that was eventually reached obliged five of the clubs to contribute $30,000 a piece to fund public access improvements. More recently, as a means of receiving public funding in the wake of Sandy's devastation, Sea Bright considered purchasing a condominium complex wrecked by the storm in order to provide more parking for beachgoers, but the initiative was thwarted: the town can replace the condominium with a park, but the park cannot have any parking spots. (Those who opposed the plan did not hide their motives: they explicitly cited increased public beach access as a concern.) Even more recently, the town repaired a portion of the seawall that was breached, but neglected to include parking spots or walkovers, even though the site was formerly publicly accessible.  

Stories about Sea Bright's beach exclusion abound: there are stories about beach clubs posting phony "private property" signs and hiring security guards to shoe people away from public beaches; there's a story about the Tradewinds development, which was approved on the grounds that it would offer three public beach access points, but only built one, and plastered that one with phony "private property" and "no trespassing" signs. (Tradewinds also had to provide on-street parking, but homeowners quickly learned that by parking second cars there, they can ensure that these spots won't be used by beachgoers.    

Sometimes one has to wonder what good accessibility measures are in the face of the remarkable tenacity of the exclusionary impulse. Where there is a will--in this case to keep the public from the beach--people will find a way. It's especially galling because in the sumer months, the more accessible Sandy Hook beach to the north often has to close because it is at full at capacity. Sea Bright's beautiful, wide, $27 million public beach is pretty much empty every day.

On the other hand, if we can look beyond the petty exclusionary nature of some of the homeowners' and the towns' tactics, the walkovers themselves are worth pondering for a few related reasons:

First, they are a fascinating and unique socio-technical artifact whose form offers a window into politics and society. Indeed, these are the kinds of objects that keep STS scholars in business!

Second, it's not hard to appreciate the walkovers as a unique piece of vernacular architecture: we have frankly never seen anything like them and they look kind of cool. This is the kind of non-hipster "spontaneous intervention" that we would like to have seen more of in last year's architecture biennale.        

Third, the walkovers are a clever, value-added local response to a problem that plagues a lot of beach towns, namely, how to protect a beach town from the ocean without undermining said beach town's ability to enjoy the ocean. Optimistically, the walkovers function as a sort of third home that enables the enjoyment oceanfront living by way of a $5,000 walkover / patio deck instead of a $500,000 "permanent" home. In this particular case, the situation is unsustainable since the 20 or so yards that buffer the main homes from the walkovers and the beach are not nearly enough to protect the homes from storm surges, but one can imagine these sorts of inexpensive, lightweight structures being a part of a larger policy of managed retreat, in which homeowners who retreat inland maintain the right to build similar inexpensive, lightweight structures on the beach.  

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