Cape May County is one legal entity, but in many ways it is structured almost as two counties.
One is older, sits on less than 10% of the county’s available land, has the majority of its housing vacant much of the year, and enjoys almost 82% of the total assessed real estate values. This part of the county with 11 resort communities holds about one third of the total permanent population, a percentage that would be considerably lower without the large permanent population in Ocean City. Only 1 in 4 of the county’s children under the age of 18 live in these communities, and again that number is inflated by Ocean City.
The other county is younger, less wealthy, sits on, and cares for, over 90% of the county’s available land, is more diverse in its demographics and provides services to two thirds of the county’s permanent population, including the vast majority of its young people, with about 18% of the ratables.
Both parts of the county depend heavily on the seasonal economy of tourism and vacation home owners. But each is also pressed by its own issues and priorities. As we envision a future for our peninsula within the context of extraordinary change, we need to build on the interconnections that link our two different counties because separately we cannot meet the challenges that face us. We need political leadership. We need community involvement. We need a shared approach to our common problems.
Let’s take a brief look at only two of those challenges that disproportionately impact our resort communities or our mainland towns.
Sea level rise is the most certain outcome of climate change. Regardless of how we see the climate change debate, sea level rise is a challenge we must face. It threatens not just the ocean-fronting communities but all of us. We are inextricably tied to what economists would call a coastal economy with its existential dependence on beach and bay. How the island communities respond to this challenge impacts us all.
As the real estate boom continues, especially in the county’s resort communities, the result is an ever greater cost of housing. We need a consensus that decent, affordable housing is something that benefits us all. Housing opportunities must be aligned with the incomes that our economy can generate or we risk the continued exodus of the young working-class families that are essential to a vibrant coastal economy.
This struggle for entry-level, affordable housing is real and the consequence of its lack impacts everyone. So too developing the resources needed to meet sea level changes is a critical strategic question for the county has a whole.
Look quickly at one other issue, that of beach nourishment. Would anyone argue that this is not an issue of critical importance to all our county communities? It deals with an essential aspect of our economy. From 1960 through to 2007, New Jersey ranked second among all states in terms of federal expenditures for beach replenishment. One in every five dollars expended was spent in New Jersey. The current litigation over the use of Hereford Inlet as a borrow area for federal nourishment projects is therefore one that impacts us all.
We need a vision for the future that delineates and encompasses the interdependence of our communities. If we allow an atomized approach in which each community is on its own, with the limitations of its own resources, we will not meet the challenges of the next few decades.
The 800 thousand visitors that annually flood the county are testimony to the unique characteristics of life here. But if we cannot hold our young, if we cannot together meet the challenges of a changing environment, if we cannot recognize and value our interdependence, we risk giving up more ground in a struggle to preserve and advance our quality of life.
We must value broad stakeholder participation in vulnerability assessments and plans for action. That has to start with our political leadership. Vision, planning, an acceptance of our interdependence and a relentless effort to seek support at state and federal levels are key to meeting the challenges of the near term.
From the Bible:
If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. James 1:5