By Donald Wittkowski
Each summer, a $12.7 million reconstruction project that will ultimately protect Sea Isle City’s low-lying main entryway from flooding must temporarily come to a halt.
The reason? Ospreys, a migratory bird, arrive like clockwork to make their nests in the marshlands surrounding Sea Isle Boulevard.
Growing frustrated with the bird-related construction delays, two groups in Sea Isle are joining together to explore the possibility of having the osprey nests removed so that the multiyear road project can continue uninterrupted.
Environmental permits for the project prohibit road construction from being done between March 15 and Aug. 15 to protect the ospreys during their nesting season, according to Cape May County Engineer Dale Foster. Ospreys are classified by the state as a threatened species of bird.
The Sea Isle City Chamber of Commerce and Revitalization agreed at its monthly board meeting Tuesday to support an effort by the Sea Isle City Taxpayers Association to try to have the permits modified to avoid construction delays over the summer.
The two groups plan to ask Cape May County, which is overseeing the road project, to amend its permit application with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection to see if three existing osprey nests could be removed along Sea Isle Boulevard, Chamber of Commerce President Christopher Glancey said.
In exchange, nine new osprey nests would be built outside of the construction area to give the birds a different location to lay their eggs and raise their chicks, Glancey explained. The cost of building the new nests would be $2,000, he said. The nests consist of manmade, elevated platforms overlooking the marshlands.
“Listen, I’ll pay the $2,000 myself if it gets this project done two and a half years ahead of schedule,” Glancey said of his hope to speed the road work along.
Sea Isle Boulevard is being reconstructed between the northbound entrance to the Garden State Parkway and the John F. Kennedy Boulevard bridge entering town, a stretch of 1.7 miles. The boulevard, Sea Isle’s primary artery, is being elevated 4.5 feet to protect it from flooding on the low-lying barrier island.
The multifaceted project began in 2014 and is being done in phases. Originally, it was thought that traffic would shift over to the new elevated section in time for the 2017 summer tourism season, but construction delays thwarted those plans. The project was shut down over the summer for the osprey nesting season.
Now that summer is over, construction crews have resumed work. In mid-October, traffic is expected to shift over from the existing, low-lying lanes of Sea Isle Boulevard onto the new, elevated side of the causeway.
However, the existing low-lying lanes must also be elevated. That part of the project won’t be done until the summer of 2019, Foster said.
After all the road work is completed, the county will build new bulkheads and also create new wetlands to replace those that were lost during the road construction. All told, the entire project will wrap up June 2020, Foster said.
Sea Isle officials are growing impatient with the construction, even though Foster says it remains on schedule. Although the project will ultimately create a better roadway and evacuation route, the lengthy construction work has been a source of frustration for Sea Isle. Mayor Leonard Desiderio has ridiculed it as the “boulevard of broken dreams.”
Hoping to accelerate the work, the Sea Isle Taxpayers Association reached out to the Chamber of Commerce to enlist its help. Together, they plan to write a letter to the county asking it to amend its environmental permit application to see if the osprey nests could be removed, Glancey said.
“Construction delays are always frustrating, especially when it concerns the causeway, the main egress and ingress into town,” he said. “Anything the county can do to expedite the project is a benefit to the community, which also benefits the business community.”
Once it is finished, the new road will not only be higher, but will be wider than the cramped lanes that currently handle traffic in and out of Sea Isle. During peak travel times in the busy summer tourist season, it is not uncommon for traffic to get backed up heading into town.