OCEAN BEACH, N.J. — On a patch of land a block from the beach in this private community of modest cottages, Kurt and Linda Framhein want to protect their hard-earned slice of the American Dream.
As they look to rebuild the bungalow wiped away by Superstorm Sandy, they want to make sure the federal government builds dunes and wider beaches to protect them from future storms.
To do that, the government needs permission from oceanfront property owners such as Ted and Dorothy Jedziniak. Twenty-three miles south in the enclave of Ship Bottom, the Jedziniaks are fighting to protect their hard-fought slice of the American Dream, too. They won't sign away to the government land they've owned for more than four decades. They are suspicious that local leaders will use their land to build boardwalks, parking or public restrooms to attract more beachgoers.
As the summer season comes to a close on Labor Day, New Jersey has spent the 10 months since Superstorm Sandy roared ashore Oct. 29 deciding how best to protect homes, roads and development on the coast from future storms.
That's no easy feat. Since Sandy, the strong emotional ties residents feel for the Jersey Shore have become a jumbled mess of competing interests that have pitted neighbor against neighbor, politicians against residents and all of them against environmental advocates and coastal scientists.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and mayors in beach towns are pushing an elaborate $1 billion plan by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to build dunes and expand beaches.
Debate over the plan goes back more than 10 years, but it intensified after Sandy wreaked a wide path of destruction that included 82,000 homes and $7.8 billion in insured losses. Had the dunes been in place, state officials say, the storm would have caused less damage.
About 1,000 oceanfront property owners are holding up the plan, refusing to sign easements that would allow the corps to build 22-foot-high dunes and 200-foot-wide beaches. Some argue the dunes would block their view. Others, such as the Jedziniaks, are ideologically opposed to government treading on their property.
Mayors and businesses posted the names of holdouts on websites and storefronts. Christie derided the property owners as selfish. Residents bombarded them with phone calls, visits to their homes and letters calling them out in newspapers.
Adding to the conflict, environmental advocates and coastal scientists say the debate is misdirected. It's akin to "fighting over the curtains when your house is burning," says Tim Dillingham, executive director of the Jersey-based American Littoral Society, a research and coastal conservation group.
Dillingham and other coastal scientists say limiting development and reducing the population on the spit of land — a half-mile across at its widest point and a fifth of a mile at its narrowest — should be at the heart of any discussion about post-Sandy rebuilding. Moving away from the coast may ultimately be the best option, they say.
Shore residents laugh at the idea. Regardless of what side of the dune debate they fall, residents cling fiercely and proudly to a tradition of claiming the Shore as their birthright.
"New Jersey would be just another state without the Shore," says Long Beach Township Mayor Joseph Mancini, a dune proponent and barrier island native, whose father served as mayor for four decades. "If we moved away from every area that was hazardous, we'd live in 10% of the U.S."
ATTACHED TO SHORE
Kurt and Linda Framhein and Ted and Dorothy Jedziniak fall on opposite sides of the dune debate, but they have a lot in common. They share an intensity for the Jersey Shore that is common among its residents.
Each comes from working class roots and sees their home on the Shore as a badge of achievement.
The Shore has been in Kurt Framhein's DNA since he was a boy visiting with his parents and sisters. His wife, Linda, grew up on the Shore, too. Her family owned their beach house in nearby Chadwick Beach for more than 50 years.
"It was the classic American Dream," Kurt Framhein says. "We came here every summer to rent in Ocean Beach."
It's why the couple, married 30 years, scrimped and saved to buy their $188,000 cottage in 2001 and hoped to retire there someday. Sandy changed that. More than a foot of water flooded their home. Mold destroyed the rest. They razed the house Memorial Day weekend.
"It's as if someone took an eraser and erased chunks of your life," Linda says.
That's why the dune issue has become so emotional.
The Framheins want to rebuild their home and want all of the protection they can get. They plan to elevate the new house, but they also want high dunes on the beach to block or slow down the waves if another storm hits. "The dunes are our lifeline," Kurt says.
The couple have been advocating for big dunes for years, but Sandy "opened everyone's eyes," Linda says. Kurt adds, "It does seem crazy that a handful of people can put thousands of people in jeopardy."
Ted and Dorothy Jedziniak agree dunes are important. Over the course of several decades, they've built a dune in front of their oceanfront property that is more than 25 feet high.
They say they don't object to the Army Corps building dunes on their land and will sign the easement if they receive a legal agreement from the town that it won't build a boardwalk or any other type of development between their house and the ocean.
Christie, the Army Corps and local officials have told residents that the easements will only allow the Corps to build and maintain the dunes. The Jedziniaks are not convinced.
"This is a land grab," Dorothy, 83, says. "We want to preserve the ambience of the island."
"This is our land," says Ted, 87, displaying the streak of toughness that got him through his service as a tail gunner on sorties in Japan during World War II. Owning land was a point of pride for the son of Polish immigrants.
The Jedziniaks have owned their property since 1970 when they bought and ran a 17-room boarding house. Dorothy says they had no experience running a motel. She was an English teacher, and Ted was an engineer. On a trip to the Shore, Ted found the place through a friend. Dorothy fell in love with the brick fireplace and the Great Room. In those days, they charged $15 a night for a room with a shared bath.
The couple knocked down the motel in the 1980s and built a duplex. They've lived there year-round ever since.
The Jedziniaks say they've been vilified and harassed. They've received letters calling them unpatriotic. People have come to their home in an effort to make them sign the easement. "We've lived here 45 years with no trouble, except now," Dorothy says.
'WE ARE NOT RUNNING AWAY'
More than 10 years ago, the Army Corps proposed an extensive coastline project of dunes and widened beaches. Several years before Sandy, it started the project in the northern beaches and in pockets in the south. Sandy washed away much of that work, requiring the corps to rebuild using about 17 million cubic yards of sand — the equivalent of 850,000 dump trucks.
The dunes and wider beaches offer the most protection against storms, while doing the least environmental damage, says Keith Watson, project manager for the Army Corps of Engineers. That matters in New Jersey where tourism on the Shore is a $40 billion industry.
Dunes are part of a state plan that includes mandating higher elevations for homes in flood-prone areas and a $300 million buyout program for homes in hazardous areas. Homeowners in working-class and low-income communities along rivers and bays are taking advantage of the buyouts, but none in the beach communities, says Larry Hajna, a spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection, which oversees state efforts to protect from future storms.
Hajna says the state's goal is to protect homes and businesses on the barrier islands. "Our economy is tied to the Shore," he says. "We are not giving that up. We are not running away."
Coastal scientists say they know talking about moving people away from the Shore in a state that relies on the coast for so much of its revenue is taboo.
"But at some point, we will have to walk away," says Robert Young, a geologist and director of the Program for Study of Developed Shorelines at Western Carolina University.
He and other coastal scientists say federally funded dunes and engineered beaches help in the short term but are too costly and require too much sand to be long-term solutions in the face of rising sea levels and bigger, badder storms. The amount of sand needed to build the dunes and widen the beaches along the entire coast one time is the equivalent of filling the 82,000-seat stadium where the New York Giants play with sand 10 times, Young says.
The beaches and dunes would need to be replenished every three to seven years, depending on how fast the sand erodes, according to the Army Corps.
"How long do you think they can keep that going?" asks Dillingham of the Littoral Society. "The sea wants to keep pushing back in. In the end, it's not a fight we are going to win."
The Framheins and Jedziniaks say the fight is worth having to protect a way of life their families have cultivated for generations.
"It's a part of us," Kurt Framhein says. Dorothy Jedziniak says, "This is our American Dream. We're not just going to give it up."
At least on that, the two families — who sit on opposite ends of the battle over the future of the beach — agree.