There Was a Lot of Good News in Southern Ocean County in 2019 – But Wait Till Next Week

Surf City, NJ — 2019 was a year filled with controversies on Long Beach Island, on the adjacent mainland of Southern Ocean County, in the state of New Jersey and, of course, in Washington, D.C.

Island residents seemed totally split on the future of the LBI Consolidated School District while Beach Havenites clashed over the proposed development of the Morrison’s Marina site. In Trenton, much time was spent deciding “pot or not” and, like the LBISD issue, the can was kicked down the street into 2020. And in Washington everything orbited around Donald Trump, with a local Democratic congressman switching to the Republican Party toward the end of the decade.

But more on all of that heavy stuff later. As we take a look at the Top 20 news stories of 2019 as reported in the pages of The SandPaper, let’s begin with some good news.

No. 20: Dog Days. We’re not talking about summer weather here, but rather about a dog that was missing after escaping from a car involved in a one-vehicle accident on the eastbound causeway to LBI on Monday, June 24.

Gabrielle McMillan, 23, of Little Egg Harbor lost control of her Nissan Sentra, which crashed into a utility pole and then rolled over. She was airlifted to the AtlantiCare trauma center in Atlantic City. McMillan’s injuries proved to be not life-threatening, but she and her boyfriend, Steven Sheldon Jr., still had to deal with major anxiety for two weeks because Jax, a 4-year-old boxer mix, was in hiding in the wildlife refuge on Bonnet Island.

Stafford Township Animal Control knew Jax was in the refuge and knew he was eating food and drinking water the agency had left him, attempting to lure him into an enclosure trap. But to say Jax was wary would be an understatement. Hey, you would be a wee bit skittish yourself if you were in a car that rolled over. And Jax was skittish even before the accident, afraid of men, water, cars and rain.

Jax finally got hungry enough on July 8 to enter the trap-cage where his food had been moved. He turned out to be healthy, although absolutely loaded with ticks.

It seems his adventure turned Jax into a homebody.

“They told us to keep him away from open doors for a while, but it seems like he doesn’t want to run anymore,” said Sheldon after Jax’s rescue. “He wants to say in the house.”

No. 19: Freak of Nature. We might as well stick with animal stories, but this one isn’t about a pet. Instead it is about a critter you likely wouldn’t want to cuddle with, a two-headed juvenile timber rattlesnake discovered in August in the Pine Barrens of Chatsworth.

“Holy cow,” Dave Burkett, who works for Herpetological Associates Inc., called to his co-worker Dave Schneider upon discovering the rarity. “This thing has two heads!”

Two-headed snakes are not unknown but rare, according to Robert Zappalorti, executive director of Herpetological Associates.

“To my knowledge,” Zappalorti said, “this is the first time a two-headed timber rattler has been found in the Northeast. Several years ago, an adult two-headed timber rattler was found in Alabama.”

Timber rattlers, which are actually rather timid creatures that help control rodent populations, are a species of venomous pit vipers with a range stretching from southern New England to Florida. They can be found in both North and South Jersey, although the more stable population is in the north.

No. 18: A Big Burn. A blaze that started at about 2 p.m. on March 30 in the Penn State Forest in Burlington County near the Barnegat Township border burned 11,638 acres before it was brought under control, making it the largest wildfire in the New Jersey Pinelands since a 17,000-acre conflagration in May 2007. Luckily it didn’t force mass evacuations of homes, as the 2007 fire did, but it did close sections of Route 72 and kept approximately 50 firefighters using 17 trucks busy while a helicopter crew monitored it from above.

New Jersey State Forest Fire Service Assistant Warden John Rieth said rumors the fire was caused by an out-of-control prescribed burn were erroneous. Indeed, state Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Catherine McCabe spoke highly of the forest fire service, saying, “This fire could have been much worse had it not been for the critical work the forest fire service does throughout the year using prescribed burns to eliminate fuels that can cause wildfires.”

No. 17: Can’t See the Forest for the Trees. Speaking of the New Jersey State Forest Fire Service, that service had applied to the Pinelands Commission to cut 16.4 acres of white pines and loblolly pines in Bass River State Forest. The reason – said trees were blocking the view from the Bass River Fire Tower. The problem – said trees, which were planted by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression, have grown to be majestic, becoming one of John Muir’s “Cathedrals of Nature.”

So the public was split, big time, over the application. “You do not cut down the forest to protect the forest,” said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. On the other hand, Howard Chew, owner of Mick’s Canoe and Kayak Rentals in Jenkins, warned that not cutting the trees to improve visibility from the tower was putting him and his family at risk as well as threatening the safety of thousands of vacationers who come to the Pinelands each summer.

Many high-tech alternatives had been suggested, such as cameras, smoke-sensing monitors, satellite imaging and drones. Building a new tower was also proposed, as was the idea of moving the present tower. But the DEP, the forest fire service’s parent, dismissed such suggestions as being impractical or too expensive.

In April the Pinelands Commission approved the clear-cutting, with only one dissenting vote.

As of now an estimated six to seven acres of the 16.4 acres has been cut.

“The Pinelands Chainsaw Massacre has begun,” said Tittel, who predicted, “They will come back to cut another 81 acres.”

No. 16: A New Municipal Building for Ship Bottom? A question mark is needed for this one! In May the Ship Bottom Borough Council agreed to go ahead with plans to build a new municipal building. The two-story building would be located to the east of the current town hall. Once the new building is completed, the old one will be torn down and additional parking will be added in that spot.

In July, the council adopted an ordinance appropriating $4 million for the project, with the borough covering a $200,000 down payment and the remainder being bonded.

In September Councilman Joy Vayo, who has been overseeing the project, said, “We’re past the conceptual stage. We know where the offices are going to be located, and the (U.S.) Post Office has signed off (on the design).”

Construction of the new building is expected to begin in the autumn of 2020. It is hoped employees can move into the new building in early 2021.

Ah, but then there is that question mark. In May, Mayor William Huelsenbeck said the borough was moving ahead because it appeared the LBI School would no longer be available. If it had been decided to consolidate all of the LBI School District’s students in the Ethel A. Jacobsen School in Surf City, then the borough might have moved its offices to the LBI School. Well, the fate of the LBI School is still up in the air (more on that later in this Top 20 countdown).

In other words, keep reading The SandPaper to see if and when this mess can be straightened out.

No. 15: Outdoor Dining in Surf City. Surf City isn’t likely to be confused with Paris anytime soon, but à la the City of Lights, it began featuring dining al fresco in 2019. In February the Surf City Borough Council passed an ordinance allowing outside dining, and on March 26 Dana DiSalvio, a co-owner of The Sandbox Café, picked up the first approved outdoor seating permit from borough hall.

“We will be creating our own slice of paradise right here in Surf City, just like we brought the magic to Ship Bottom,” DiSalvio told The SandPaper upon picking up her permit. DiSalvio also owns a restaurant that features outdoor dining in Ship Bottom.

“Thank you, Mr. Mayor and members of the land use board,” DiSalvio remarked, concluding, “We are super excited and can’t wait for this to finally happen.”

No. 14: The Winds of Change. President Trump – “Darling, is the wind blowing today? I’d like to watch television, darling.” – may ridicule wind power, but N.J. Gov. Phil Murphy certainly doesn’t. Murphy was practically ecstatic in June when the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities announced the award of the needed Offshore Wind Renewable Energy Certificates permit to a Danish company that plans on building its 1,100-megawatt Ocean Wind project 15 miles off Atlantic City’s coastline in federal waters on the outer continental shelf.

The BPU said the project is expected to generate $1.17 billion in economic benefits and create 15,000 jobs over the project’s life. The 1,100 MW of electricity produced by the project’s 85 to 100 wind turbines is expected to power roughly 500,000 homes.

“The decision sets the record for the single largest award for offshore wind in the country and marks further progress toward meeting the state’s goal of 3,500 MW of offshore wind by 2030 and Governor Phil Murphy’s vision of 100 percent clean energy for the state by 2050,” read a BPU press release.

“Today’s historic announcement will revolutionize the offshore wind industry here in New Jersey and along the entire East Coast,” said Murphy. “This award is a monumental step in making New Jersey a global leader in offshore wind development and deployment.”

But Barnegat Light Mayor Kirk Larson, who along with business partner James Gutowski collectively represents 12 commercial vessels at the Viking Village docks, is worried wind turbines could kill the scallop business. He’s especially worried about leases proposed off Long Island, Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard because, he says, that is where the best scalloping grounds are located.

“We’re scared to death that what they are doing will drive us out of business, the whole scallop industry. They should have allowed Fishermen’s Energy to do what they intended to do – a small pilot program to see what kind of damage to the ocean these turbines would do – instead of going ahead and building a giant wind farm.”

No. 13: Community Supports Coasties. The beginning of 2019 wasn’t a good time for the men and women of the U.S. Coast Guard. The members of the country’s other armed forces – the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines – were being paid. But the Coast Guard isn’t part of the Department of Defense, it is under the Department of Homeland Security, and the partial government shutdown resulted in their not getting paychecks.

Luckily the Southern Ocean County community showed how much they appreciate the Coasties and their families and responded big time. Municipalities such as Beach Haven and organizations such as the St. Francis Community Center and the LBI Foundation of the Arts and Sciences, along with a host of private individuals and businesses such as the Greenhouse Café, collected non-perishable food items, personal hygiene supplies, dog and cat supplies and gift cards for the crew of Coast Guard Station Barnegat Light. The Greenhouse Café, for example, offered free or discounted meals to crew members, free if the meal was $20 or less, discounted if the check ran higher. There was a reason for the $20 limit – Coasties aren’t allowed to accept gifts of more than $20. Still, $20 gift cards could add up.

Even some corporations got into the act. Hackensack Meridian Health waived copays and deductibles for emergency visits to its urgent care centers and network hospitals, including Manahawkin’s Southern Ocean Medical Center, for members of the Coast Guard, their immediate families, and all other furloughed federal workers and their insured family members.

Luckily the shutdown ended after 35 days and the Coasties got their back pay. Still, that was the longest government shutdown in history and was surely a big pain in the butt. On the other hand, the Coasties learned the local community is there for them, just as they always are for us.

No. 12: Pinelands Regional Opens on Time. It was close, but the Pinelands Regional High School building, which had been closed for all of the 2018-19 school year and for big chunks of 2017-18 due to construction, opened on time last September.

To repeat, it was close! On July 24, Brian Moore of Epic Construction, the firm overseeing that district’s numerous construction projects, updated the Pinelands Board of Education on progress and used the words “aggressive schedule” several times.

“So, good to go inside the building, as well as good to go outside the building?” asked Karen Poklikuha, who represents Eagleswood Township on the Pinelands Board of Education. “I’ve heard ‘aggressive’ about six times.”

“It is an aggressive finishing schedule,” answered Moore.

“But the expectation is that we will meet it?”

“We will meet it if someone could hold nightly rains back,” said Moore.

God finally smiled on Pinelands after two rough years. The rains did hold off, and the schools opened on time.

Hurrah!

No. 11: Mission Almost Accomplished. How long has it been since you’ve heard of a government project being completed ahead of schedule? Maybe you don’t remember because it doesn’t happen often.

Yet that’s exactly what happened in May when the rehabilitation of the old Causeway Bridge was completed a year early. That’s right, a year ahead of schedule!

The $312 million federally funded Causeway Bridge expansion and rehabilitation, for which construction began in 2013, has only one phase left – but it’s a doozy. It calls for the reconfiguration of the Causeway circle into a square where Route 72, a.k.a. Eighth and Ninth streets, intersects with Long Beach Boulevard in Ship Bottom. That construction is expected to begin in the later summer/early autumn of this year.

So, the first 10 of the Top 20 local news stories of 2019 were, for the most part, good stories. The same can’t be said for the second 10, which you can read next week. That’s when the controversies really kick in.

rickmellerup@thesandpaper.net

Reposted from The Sandpaper, Jan. 8, 2020