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June 19, 2016

Jersey Shore towns seeing steady flight of full-timer population

Census data show continuing coastal trend in response to storm damage, falling property values

You might not suspect it during your crawling summer trips along the Garden State Expressway, but towns at the Jersey Shore have been losing year-round residents in droves, according to a census review conducted by NJ Advance Media.

A review of the interactive map below shows losses in the thousands at several shore hotspots over the last decade. Long Beach township's population dropped 13.9 percent, while Ocean City lost a whopping 23.03 percent of its residents. Wildwood Crest lost 19.11 percent. Even Avalon fell 5.75 percent.

What's going on here? New Jersey's population as a whole increased 3 percent from 2005 to 2014, but the coastal shore towns in Atlantic, Cape May, Monmouth and Ocean Counties lost an average of 9 percent of their residents. That includes extreme outliers like Sea Isle City (-38 percent) and Beach Haven (-36 percent).

The biggest culprit may be the lasting effects of Superstorm Sandy, which has left thousands of homeowners in insurance oblivion. Others are either ineligible for FEMA assistance or haven't yet returned to their homes after receiving aid through the state's Reconstruction, Rehabilitation, Elevation and Mitigation program.

That last point is highlighted starkly by a 2.42 percent vacancy rate in the four counties noted above, a significant gap between the state average of 1.51 percent in 2016.

Complicating matters are declining property values in these counties, some attributable to the crash of the housing bubble, others due to residual and surrounding damages. Most worrisome would be the growing perception that coastal shore properties are simply a much riskier long-term investment than in decades past.

Since Sandy, New Jersey has aggressively worked to reinforce vulnerable beaches with military-engineered dunes, occasionally against stiff community opposition. One of the final holdouts, Margate, gave up its battle last week against the state's eminent domain efforts, culminating a four-year struggle.

After January's massive winter storm, aerial footage of Belmar's reinforced coasts demonstrated that the dunes can be an effective bulwark against some extreme weather events. At the time, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie even touted his infrastructure initiatives as a mark in favor of his since-suspended presidential campaign. His in-state approval ratings have consistently fallen over the course of the year. 

The phenomenon of flight from the shore may have many other fiscal, social and lifestyle factors as well, but it's certainly not been a brand new dilemma. As the Philadelphia Inquirer reported in 2011, prior to the hurricane, similar population declines had already registered as a trend, often a reaction to the state's high cost of living.

Even if commerce continues to suffer during the off-peak months, certain revenue streams are relatively stable from the standpoint of state and local governments. Property taxes are paid by owners at the same rate regardless of whether or not the home is a primary or secondary residence. Population also has no bearing on municipal or federal aid calculations.

From a community and educational standpoint, however, fewer year-round residents could threaten long-term local identification and force the merger of schools based on falling enrollment numbers.

You can check out more maps and statistics at NJ Advance Media.