For more than a year after Superstorm Sandy pummeled Ocean County’s northern barrier island, a simple sign – words spray painted on a piece of old plywood – adorned a street corner at Route 35: “Welcome to Ortley Beach, Ground Zero for Superstorm Sandy, Forever Changed.”
Ortley Beach, legally a portion of Toms River Township, has, ironically, grown its year-round population since the storm struck and either damaged or destroyed the majority of the neighborhood’s homes. Toms River’s regional school district now sends more buses “over the bridge” to the beach community, and officials have said housing prices have started to rebound. But there is also worry over property taxes, mitigating future storms and keeping the neighborhood affordable enough for long-time residents to remain.
“Our fouled-up property tax system and a bankrupt state that has a continually-declining bond rating is causing most of the problems” said Paul Jeffrey, the former president of the Ortley Beach Voters and Taxpayers Association, and a resident of Bay Boulevard, which saw some of the worst flooding during the storm.
In November, New Jersey residents will elect a new governor, and everyone seems to agree there is a lot at stake – from the property tax issue, to the environment, to how the state will respond to the policies of President Donald Trump. To help shed light on what issues are on the minds of residents statewide, Shorebeat is one of 15 news publications statewide, including WYNC, WHYY, NJ Spotlight and The Record, that will follow residents of a neighborhood in their coverage area to key in on what New Jerseyans are talking about as the election draws near. We could think of no place more interesting and filled with opinions than Ortley Beach – especially the residents along and off Bay Boulevard – that have dealt with the grueling task of rebuilding their homes while dealing with the state bureaucracy.
Shorebeat will follow a number of residents are the race plays out, and host a dinner to discuss views from different sides of the political spectrum.
Ortley Beach is also a place where property tax concerns, often ranked as the number one issue for voters statewide, are a pervasive subject among neighbors. With its residential property values generally higher than the average assessment on the mainland in the rest of Toms River, Ortley Beach residents often pay higher tax bills than their fellow township homeowners. There has even been talk of “secession” to form a new town or join another. Like most of Ocean County, the majority of Ortley Beach residents are Republicans, though an influx of new residents from across the state has added new voices in recent years.
Jeffrey, for his part, is keeping an open mind, but he said he’s dealt with Republican candidate Kim Guadagno before and is interested to see what she would do as governor.
“I’m really interested in seeing if she can straighten out this mess,” Jeffrey said. “I’m concerned with [Democrat candidate Phil] Murphy because just pumping more money into the system through public assistance seems to be what he’s all about.”
Murphy has proposed about $1.3 billion in tax increases and spending, though he said it would mainly be funded by a so-called “millionaires’ tax” as well as proceeds from the sale of recreational marijuana. He has also come out in favor of stronger environmental regulations, which could help sway some votes in an area where coastal retreat and sea level rise has affected daily life. Jeffrey’s group has advocated for the public acquisition of the former Joey Harrison’s Surf Club property so it can be turned into a public beach.
“Christie didn’t seem to believe that ocean rise is a real issue,” said Jeffrey. “We should work with the federal government to re-fund the Blue Acres program. If your property is washed away in a storm, we’ll pay you the fair market value and you’re out.”
Environmentalists frequently cited the lack of valuable Shore area real estate in state buyouts of frequently-flooded properties as a mistake of the Christie administration. The properties are normally purchased under the Blue Acres program.
Ultimately, however, Jeffrey said he and his neighbors are most interested in seeing the state’s financial ship being righted.
“Everything, all of these problems, is linked to the disastrous financial situation,” he said.
This story is part of the Voting Block series and was produced in collaboration with Revealfrom The Center for Investigative Reporting, the Center for Cooperative Media and New America Media. To read all the stories in this series and see the full list of reporting partners, visit VotingBlockNJ.com.