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Beloved backwater shacks in South Jersey could be razed by state

New Jersey's Department of Environmental Protection says the seven shacks that sit on the shores of the Delaware River tributaries in rural Salem County were built illegally.

LOWER ALLOWAYS CREEK TOWNSHIP, N.J. — A family's ramshackle and beloved refuge sits at the confluence of two brackish creeks, a paradise with propane heat and an outhouse, perched above the mud on the edge of nowhere.

The women in the Liber family don't sleep at Half-Way House often, on account of the mice and rats, but their children have spent countless summer days here over the decades, marking their height in pencil by the doorjamb and tracking thick, black mud into the bunks when the breathless sunsets finally called it quits. No one loved this shipping-container-sized shack in rural Salem County — one of seven that sit on Hope and Half-Way Creeks and surrounding tidal tributaries — more than Lewis Liber, who'd hole up weeks at a time.

He died in 2009, and most of his ashes were spread here. The rest are in a can of Yuengling.

"No, not those. Those are the dog's ashes," his brother, Chuck Liber, 72, said Monday, pointing to a bag of grit with Cadence written on it that was pinned to the wood paneling.

He has taken the Yuengling home because the fate of Half-Way House and the other creek shacks is uncertain after New Jersey's Department of Environmental Protection received an anonymous complaint last year that some were on state land.

The DEP took a boat out to visit and said all of the shacks were built illegally, without permits, and violate a number of wetlands regulations. Four are on property the state began buying in 1985, and are now part of the 9,300-acre Mad Horse Creek Wildlife Management Area. The people who lay claim to the shanties on state land believed demolition would begin Monday, but the structures still stood during the morning's high tide as contractors prepared a landing area for equipment on Hope Creek.

Larry Hajna, a DEP spokesman, said the department is in transition after November's gubernatorial election and the acting commissioner, Catherine McCabe, is reviewing the situation. No demolition will occur during the review, Hajna said, but it is unclear how long that will take.

The shacks on state land have been there for decades, their caretakers claim, and they're always unlocked and accessible to fishermen, hunters, boaters, or anyone in distress along the water, more public than private in every way.

"These cabins have been there as long as anyone can remember," said Larry McKelvey, whose shack, dubbed "Downtown," sits just off the Delaware River. "My father and I have talked about getting another cabin. It will probably be somewhere else. Not New Jersey. I'm just totally disgusted with our government."

The DEP says many of the structures in the wildlife management area have been rebuilt, moved, and improved upon, all without permits, in a pristine area not meant for development.

"Our wildlife management areas are managed strictly for wildlife and wildlife viewing and hunting," Hajna said. "They are not developed with any amenities."

The Liber shack is on private property, a three-acre parcel on Half-Way Creek that their father, George "Lew" Liber," bought in 1954 for hunting, fishing, and trapping muskrat, a local delicacy. The DEP cited the Libers and the other private shack owners as well, saying they must all apply for the permits they never received decades ago. If approved, their properties would be legal.

That process, Liber said, could cost as much as $10,000, and he believes the state has already made up its mind to reject the applications. Hajna acknowledged the permitting process would be "really tough" for the private shack owners.

"Our coastal wetlands are afforded some of the highest protections among all land-use regulations," he said.

In October, the Salem County Board of Chosen Freeholders passed a resolution in support of the "Historic Delaware River and Estuary Fish and Game Cabins," claiming the demolition of the creek shacks or "imposition of environmental permitting regulations is considered to be an onerous, unnecessary burden …"

The first cabin on Liber land burned down in 1958 after a fire swept through the reeds. The family rebuilt in 1967 when Chuck Liber returned from Vietnam. The "Salem Sunbeam" newspaper box by the dock is a gag, considering the shack is only accessible by boat through a labyrinth of narrow waterways that all blend together. An American flag rising up from the roof by the widow's walk is the first thing visitors see above the endless plains of marsh reeds.

Inside, Half-Way House has amassed generations of memories and quirky mementos, fish guts and tall tales, IOUs that will never be honored, and even a tobacco pipe, nailed to the wall the moment a guy named "Vic" decided to quit in 1994. Liber said the family was at the shack, fishing for striped bass, when they learned Lewis, their brother, had died.

Thanks to batteries and generators, the shack is the site of annual cookouts for the Iron Bowl after Thanksgiving, and someone has been there to watch or listen to every World Series since the 1970s. When the Phillies beat Tampa Bay in 2008, Liber let out the loneliest cheer, and only the owls and otters heard him.

"I sat here by myself, out on the deck. I had my cheese and crackers and my beer," the retired New Jersey state trooper said.

The Libers make every guest sign a log book, and there's no telling whether their fifth one will ever fill up with scribbled well-wishes from toddlers and duck hunters

"Come spring, if we're still here," Chuck said about some future repair.

His 79-year-old brother, Bob, who had been out earlier setting muskrat traps with his son, Matt, 51, put his muddy, gloved fingers up by his ears, the if just too unbearable.

"Aw come on, I don't want to hear 'if we're still here,' " he interrupted.

Together, the three Liber men took their boat over to John Clendining's shack, the newest of the bunch with a red metal roof and expansive deck that offers an unbroken view of the Salem nuclear plant's cooling tower. Clendining, 60, a farmer who owns 144 acres in the marsh, spent years building this place in his spare time. He and his wife come out in the summer for peace, to watch the swallows and purple martins, the majestic blue herons and bald eagles in one of New Jersey's most remote settings.

"I hauled every piece of wood out here in that little boat," Clendining said, running his hands over the white pine planks that serve as siding.

Clendining said he felled the pines himself on his farm. The Libers ran their own muddy hands across them, too, complimenting Clendining on his carpentry and commending him for leaving his door unlocked like all the others.

The DEP notified Clendining of his violations, too. Fighting city hall, even miles into the mud on land he has owned for 40 years, seems daunting, he said. He has taken some personal items back home in his green aluminum jon boat. A couch, torn up by a raccoon, sits on the deck.

"It was a lot of work," Clendining said. "It's going to be a lot of work if I have to take it all down."