For a few weeks, it was the Super Bowl of island politics. Residents and elected officials were divided. A borough council meeting in Lavallette saw its most vigorous debate in months. A giant, painted clam needed a new home – and everyone had an opinion on where it should go.
In the end, the mammoth mollusk came to rest in front of borough hall, next to the directory sign that some feared may have had to be moved to accommodate the freshly-painted sculpture.
“Everybody helped with the clam,” said Council President Anita Zalom. “It’s now in its spot. I spoke with Public Works, and they’re going to put a solar spotlight on the clam so we can see it at night, also.”
As comical as the debate became, at times, the clam itself is a worthy adornment to borough hall – and a positive reminder of an important species in Barnegat Bay. Its original intent was to mark Lavallette’s place on what was known as the “Clam Trail,” an effort by the local group ReClam the Bay to highlight important points in their effort to expand the shellfish population, improve water quality and foster economic growth. The Clam Trail’s growth was stunted by Superstorm Sandy, though it lives on in the Long Beach Island area, where much of RCTB’s efforts are focused.
Designed in 2009, the colorful creation had been located near the bay for several years before its paint began to deteriorate. The hurricane just made matters worse, and left officials with much more serious issues to deal with. But after a decade, the larger-than-life shellfish sculpture has had new life breathed into it thanks to borough resident Mary Jo Austin, who painted the original design on the clam. Austin was asked to work her artful magic a second time, and she delivered.
The clam, however, remained in Austin’s garage as the debate over its future home simmered. And the debate was real – there were meetings, discussions, and even an online poll that asked residents to chime in with their own suggestions. Some did not want the clam returned to the bayfront because of the level of deterioration it experienced the first time around. Others thought the business district could use it as a decoration. Borough Hall eventually became something of a consensus choice, but its positioning was still up in the air.
“Two things of interest in the same location will conflict with each other,” opined Councilwoman Joanne Filippone at the Dec. 5 council meeting, when the option of moving the town’s directory sign – a $9,000 donation to the new building from the Beautification Committee – was floated. “I oppose the moving of the sign. Period.”
Cooler heads prevailed, and it turned out that compromise was easier than it originally appeared. The colorful clam was placed in front of borough hall, with enough separation to avoid a clash with the directory sign, and no need to move anything out of the way. The finishing touch of an artfully-crafted base and the impending addition of the solar spotlight neatly brought together the prominence of the painting, environmental awareness and the aesthetics worthy of a beautiful Jersey Shore resort community.
“I suggested exactly where it is right now – there’s plenty of room, and the building sign did not have to be moved,” Filippone said with a chuckle at the borough council meeting Monday night, with the controversy safely over. “The [base] color was picked by Dave [Finter] – he took the color chart to the clam and unbeknownst to us, it matches the trim on the building.”
A member of the borough’s Public Works Department hand-built the base, Filippone added.
“It looks really lovely,” she said.
And with that, Lavallette’s giant clam has settled in its new digs. At the same time, ReClam the Bay is continuing its work to restore the bay’s clam and oyster beds, which serve as natural filters for the water, provide habitat and food for other species, and are part of Ocean County’s growing aquaculture economy.
Recently, the group posted an update on the sea grasses that have begun fostering new life in areas of the bay where clam beds have been planted over the years by RCTB volunteers.
“I’m watching in awe the fauna attracted to our planted reefs, including the plant/weed life,” said volunteer Laura Peters in a recent social media post, embedded below. “I was hoping to see some grasses growing by this fall on or around the reefs as this would help stabilize the silt around or on the oyster beds.”
Next time you’re at borough hall, take a peak at the clam. There was a lot of work, debate, and thought that went into it reaching its final destination.