DOWNE TOWNSHIP, N.J. — There are no neon lights, no boardwalk, and amusements include the constant lapping waves of the Delaware Bay and the occasional sight of a thousand snow geese flying over the salt marshes like windswept clouds.
For the 1,500 or so people who live in this rural Cumberland County community, 60 miles south of Philadelphia, life without a traffic light is the way they like it. But many of Downe’s unincorporated communities, like the centuries-old fishing villages of Fortescue and Money Island, and the single road of bayfront homes on Gandy’s Beach, were hammered by Hurricane Irene and Superstorm Sandy.
A few dozen Money Island homeowners sold their properties to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection in the aftermath of those storms, and others are negotiating to do the same. Once the DEP razes those homes, the properties will essentially go back to nature. That’s what happened in Seabreeze, a ghost town just north of Downe, where every home is gone.
“That’s not going to happen here. We won’t let it,” Downe Township Mayor Mike Rothman said aboard his fishing boat in Fortescue recently.
Rothman and former Mayor Robert Campbell believe their longtime dream -- replacing septic systems and propane tanks with sewer lines and natural gas -- will be a bulwark against the forces of nature and a rebuttal to those who feel the residents of Downe should retreat from the coast and move inland. The project is finally coming to fruition for Fortescue and Gandy’s Beach, and Campbell believes the consistency and cost benefits of modern infrastructure could boost property values and draw in new businesses like hotels and eateries.
“Honestly, I’d love to see an ice cream parlor,” Campbell, now a committeeman in Downe, said. “There’s no place to get an ice cream cone in Fortescue.”
The sewer project, which could go out to bid in the coming months, has been discussed for a decade and is estimated to cost $15 million. Downe Township received a $4.49 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2019 for construction costs. Approximately $11 million of the project is funded via grants, Campbell said, and the rest could be financed if more grants are unavailable. The sewer plant will be built at the site of a former boatyard in Fortescue purchased by the township.
Campbell said there have been a few “naysayers” but estimated that 99% of the public is on board.
“There’s always people who don’t want any change,” he said.
When the USDA grant was announced in 2019, Jeff Tittel, the now-retired director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, wrote op-eds denouncing the project as a way to usher in unneeded development in one of the state’s most unique and fragile landscapes.
“I still feel that way,” Tittel said recently.
New Jersey’s bayfront, Tittel said, is on the front lines of climate change and rising sea levels, prone to constant flooding and susceptible to major storms. He believes people should be slowly retreating from communities like Fortescue and Gandy’s Beach, not shoring up the infrastructure there.
“We shouldn’t be investing in places like this,” he said, “because they might not be here in 50 years. They might be underwater.”
Rothman and Campbell say it’s defeatism, not climate change, that’s the real threat to Downe Township.
“We have the same flooding we’ve always had,” Campbell said. “It’s mother nature.”
Jane Morton Galetto, board president of Citizens United to Protect the Maurice River & Its Tributaries, said Downe’s sewer project is preferable to the current situation, where the state of each property’s septic system can vary greatly. Communities like Fortescue are cultural anchors, Morton Galetto said, as important to Downe and New Jersey as all the township’s natural resources.
“We are not a historical society, but we have a grand appreciation of people’s place in the landscape,” she said on a tour through Downe Township recently.
Fortescue has been a tourist attraction since the 1800s, accessible by buggy and boat. Hotels and dance halls and beachfront shacks rose and fell like the tides, sometimes burned to the ground or swept out by storms. The town is still known as the “weakfish capital of the world,” after the once bountiful fish that populated the water and dinner plates there.
Rothman, who owns a fishing charter boat he docks in Fortescue, said he takes nearly as many bird-watchers out for cruises these days as he does fishermen.
Some homes in Downe’s bayfront communities are vacant, or in disrepair, but officials believe that will change once sewer lines go to every property. Real estate sales are already increasing in Fortescue and Gandy’s Beach, Rothman said, and some agents have mentioned the infrastructure project in their listings. It’s possible to purchase a waterfront home in Fortescue for less than $300,000.
“I don’t think we’ll see the full impact until a year or two,” said Donald Sullivan, a real estate agent out of Vineland, “but I’ve already sold a few properties where the buyer was under the assumption this was going to happen. That was part of the deal.”
Fortescue has a few eateries, summer-only merchants, and, of course, a bait shop. There are a handful of homes available on Airbnb in Downe and four rooms at the Charlesworth Hotel & Restaurant, a waterfront steak and seafood establishment built in 1924. Rothman said one potential buyer is interested in building a 100-room hotel at the current site of a campground on the water.
The Charlesworth’s owner, Syboll, said he spends $2,000 a month on his septic system and is eager for the sewer project to get started.
“In fact, I’ll grab a shovel and help them if they need it,” he said.
Rothman said no sewer project will change the bucolic nature of Downe Township. Most of its land consists of inland farms, protected open space, and vast acreages owned by nonprofits like the Nature Conservancy and Natural Lands trust. Their bayfront communities serve a different crowd than the millions who head to the Jersey Shore every summer.
“There may be development but, bottom line, this is still Fortescue,” he said. “It’s never going to be Wildwood or Cape May. We pride ourselves on nature. That’s why people are going to come here.”