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Category: Environmental

Rebuilding a Beach

Manmade beaches in Cape May have been a fact of life for 20 years this year. This article first ran as Beach Replenishment – A Blessing or a Curse in Cape May Magazine, June 2007. Replenishment photos appear courtesy of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

You are lying on the beach on Cape Island. The breezes plant salty kisses. The sun caresses your skin.  The ocean water tickles your toes. The sound of the sea lulls you into oblivion.

The Island’s beautiful tide-washed strand creates a place for the very best of natural experiences, but can you believe most of this seascape is man-made?

Cape May's evolving shoreline. The borough of South Cape May once stood in the gap marked by the 1879 line.

The reality is that engineers have been altering the tip of New Jersey for 100 years.

They dug the current 500-acre Cape May Harbor with mammoth dredges starting in 1903, spreading the dredge spoils over 3,600 acres of wetlands and oyster beds to create the new East Cape May development.

The Cape May Inlet jetties (formerly called Cold Spring jetties), were completed in 1911, their long arms reaching 4,500 feet into the Atlantic, at the mouth of the harbor. These inlet jetties are devils in the struggle against beach erosion.

During World War II, with German submarines torpedoing ships off Cape May, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, in a wartime emergency act, sliced across the peninsula from the Coast Guard base to Delaware Bay, digging a three-mile canal to protect U.S. military maneuvers.

Now fast-forward to the 1980s. It is sad to see that Cape Island beaches are mere slivers of what they were when the Lenni Lenape Indians, the Unalachtigo, (meaning people who live by the ocean) fished and hunted the high dunes and broad beaches.

Cape May Point after a storm in 1991. Note the bunker standing in the water

The fast-eroding seashore had become a major political-economic issue. Energetic young visionaries all around Cape May were restoring Victorian structures, converting them into comfy B&Bs. The city was enjoying its new-found halo as a National Historic Landmark. Positive publicity went nation-wide. Yet the buzz in the tourist industry produced a big negative: Cape May is a pretty town. Great architecture, nice gardens, good restaurants. But the beaches are lousy. “You had to plan your vacation around the tide table and move your blanket inland every five minutes,” says Vicki Clark, executive director of the Cape May County Chamber of Commerce.

Pressure was put on the Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps finally admitted a big mistake had been made in anticipating the negative aspects of cutting through the canal 45 years earlier. The Corps agreed that the design of the canal, with the extended older jetties, had a devastating effect on Cape Island beaches.

“It’s obvious from aerial photographs that the north jetty creates a severe offset that interferes with the river of sand that flows offshore,” says Army Corps Project Engineer Dwight Pakan. “The sand gets trapped at the north jetty and impedes the natural drift southward toward beaches in Cape May City, the Cove, the Meadows, the Lighthouse beach and Cape May Point.”

It took an act of Congress to decide that what the government had mistakenly taken away, it must return to Cape Island. The Army Corps of Engineers got the assignment in the late 1970s to design a beach replenishment project that would dramatically change the landscape and life of locals and vacationers.


Poverty Beach before (top) and after replenishment in the late 90s. Note the Christian Admiral still standing in both pictures.

First evidence of new sand from Poverty Beach to Pittsburgh Avenue appeared during the winter of 1991. Giant mountains of sand were pumped in from a dredge offshore, then sculpted and graded. The monster sand-moving equipment appeared in the mist and fog like dinosaurs hulking against the sea.

“There was no beach at all,” says Pakan. There were the massive concrete and boulder seawall and groins reaching into the ocean that had been constructed in the 1940s to protect beach front properties. “We buried them with sand to shape the new beach.” It stretched from the Coast Guard base south past the deteriorating 1908 Christian Admiral Hotel, a mere shell of its former self, the once-grand centerpiece of the East Cape May Real Estate Company development.

Since 1989, the cost of rebuilding and replenishing Cape Island beaches has topped $50 million with estimates of more than $100 million to continue replenishing in the future. More than 33 million cubic yards of sand have been redeposited from offshore to create 5.7 miles of expanded beach from the Coast Guard base to Cape May Point. This new seascape today remains very political, experimental, controversial and one of the most expensive manufactured beaches in the world.

Depending on which side of the blanket you are sitting, beach replenishment is considered a blessing – or a curse.

Taxpayers from all over America foot the multi-million dollar bill to build the beaches. And taxpayers, through Congress, have promised to continue paying for replenishment for 50 years after the initial projects are completed.

Despite the commitment, every year is a struggle to secure the money.   “It’s a forever challenge to convince midwest and mountain representatives that beach replenishment is not about a sun tan, but bread and butter issues,” says Congressman Frank LoBiondo “If there’s no beach, there are no tourists, no businesses, no jobs, the ripple effects are devastating. Likewise, the beaches and dunes protect lives and property. Without this system in place we would suffer the consequences of a storm direct hit. Remember Katrina?”

There is no debating that beaches are the lifeblood of the economy. The lust for the sea experience generates billions in vacation dollars and real estate fortunes. Many blessings, indeed.

But there is danger lurking along man-made beaches where high surf breaks closer to the beach and there are sudden drop-offs and step-offs in the ocean where the imported sand has not stabilized to form a gentle slope found on natural beaches. There are invisible cavities near stone groins, aging steel and wooden piers that have been blanketed with sand.


Cape May Point before (above) and after beach replenishment in 2004-5. The lighthouse and St. Mary's by the Sea are visible.

Veteran beach lovers in Cape May Point were angry the first summer after the 2004 winter beach replenishment. They were vocal about dangerous holes and drop-offs, new rip currents and rough imported sand. They were accustomed to narrow tide-cooled sloping beaches of the finest sand in the world.

Former Mayor Malcolm Fraser, an engineer, told the upset beachgoers, “Patience. We need to wait for nature to take its course stabilizing the new beach. The tides will wash over it, hardening the beach in place. Natural sands will drift in, and begin to collect as is to happen with successful beach replenishment.”

Patience and stubbornness are Fraser traits that have been fundamental to building the 2.7 miles of new beach from the 3rd Avenue Cove in Cape May to Cape May Point.

The nuns at St. Mary By-the-Sea prayed for a miracle when they realized their massive picturesque summer retreat house at the Point was threatening to fall into the sea. (Cape May Magazine, Fall 2006) You could say it’s a miracle that Mayor Fraser was able to use an obscure executive order signed by President George Bush in 1991 allowing the Army Corps a loophole to protect threatened, but critical wildlife habitats. In this case, it is Cape May’s Migratory Refuge.


The view looking north after the army fill in 2003.

Mayor Fraser’s motivation? Without success his little town of 240 cottage dwellers might wash away in major storms as neighboring South Cape May did a century ago. The World War II bunker where he proposed marriage to his wife in 1953 now stood on pilings in the surf. The wetlands, known as the Lower Cape Meadows, home to the Migratory Bird Refuge at Cape May Point State Park, near the Lighthouse, were inundated with salt water when Hurricane Gloria hit in 1985 and broke dunes. Storms in 1991 breached rebuilt dunes a half dozen times and contaminated the fresh water.

Sometimes it seemed a losing proposition, but Mayor Fraser never gave up. “I promised my bride 53 years ago she would always live in Cape May Point,” he says. “It was a pre-nuptial agreement.”

A decade of studying, politicking with Congress and planning with the Army Corps of Engineers resulted in the 2004 project that pumped in 1.7 million cubic yards of sand at the cost of 15 million dollars. High dunes were constructed over massive cores of gravel and clay. Where there once was sea and the ghosts of South Cape May, a wide expanse of beach stretched toward the Atlantic. The Lighthouse beaches quadrupled in size. Dunes now protect the nuns’ 150-year-old St. Mary’s and Point cottages. And the Army bunker where Mayor Fraser proposed marriage has sand around its feet.

After the army fill, looking toward Cape May Point

The most dramatic change in the landscape is in East Cape May where developers went bankrupt at the turn of the century. Once the new beaches were built in 1991, the neighborhood flooding that happened with every fierce nor’easter and hurricane became a bad memory. When the Christian Admiral was torn down in 1996, the monopoly game began in earnest.

Called the Admiral Beach Estates, the site of the old hotel was subdivided into 26 lots. Beachfront lots sold for more than $400,000.  Now, 10 years later, there are a couple dozen new multi-million dollar mansions, and one beachfront lot remaining. It was listed recently at more than $3.5 million! Some of the lots have been flipped several times, fortunes being made. Residents were living on highly escalated land, but they lost their private tiny beaches hidden by the seawall.

As this story is written, a mean nor’easter is battering Cape Island. It’s dusk at Cape May Point. Malcolm Fraser pulls on his slicker and boots, a slight figure, bracing against 55 mph winds at a beach look-out. Into the darkness he sees his beaches are holding. He returns to his cottage on Lake Lily. “We survived another one,” he says to his wife.

Beach Replenishment Update

That rolling thunder heard in Cape May this winter brings promise of more sand on the beaches next summer. As many as 360 triple-axel trucks, loaded with sand, are tooling down Delaware Avenue each day to the Coast Guard base until 126,000 cubic yards, or 151,640 tons of sand is dumped there. The truck cavalcade is expected to be in action 30 to 40 days, depending on weather.

The sand is being deposited on an old air strip, then moved and spread on “feeder” beaches at the Coast Guard base. The idea is to let nature take its course, and allow the tides to move the sand down the public beaches from Poverty Beach west to the Cove and on down to the bird sanctuary in Lower Township.

Originally the Army Corps of Engineers plan called for 360,000 cubic yards of sand for this phase of Cape May beach replenishment. It was to have been accomplished, as it has in the past, but piping sand from the ocean onto the beaches. However, the cost became cost prohibitive, much more so than the government had estimated. That’s why it was decided to truck in the sand at a cost of $2.3 million.

The Army Corps has been replenishing Cape May beaches since 1989, when the original reconstruction began, plus eight refilling projects about every two years.

The fact that there is less sand available this year is viewed by some as positive since less sand produces a more gradual slope, creating safer beaches for swimmers and surfers. In the past, large sand deposits have resulted in tides digging out sudden steep step-offs which have been blamed for recreational accidents.

There has been some concern voiced about the quality of sand trucked in from sandpits. According to Project Manager Dwight Pakan, the contractor Albrecht and Heun will supply clean sand from its pits at Cape May Court House that meet specifications and will mix with existing sand on the beaches. “The sand should be no different than what is now on the beach,” says Pakan. “In 2000, we placed trucked-in quarry sand on Cape May Point beaches with no problems.”

Some of Cape May Point’s beaches that are protected by offshore breakwaters have become so stabilized, they are now uneven with the beaches washed by ocean tides. These stabilized beaches stretch 20-30 feet further into the water, and cause uneven footing for swimmers.

Cape May Point officials have asked the Army Corps to remove some of that sand and place it on the Meadows (bird sanctuary) beaches. That contract was awarded December 10th. Bulldozers and haulers are expected to complete the project by March 2009.

To dephrag or not dephrag?

phagmiteslighthouseThat is the question currently being posed by residents of Cape May Point as well as the New Jersey Environmental Federation, the City of Cape May, and the New Jersey Audubon Society (NJAS) as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers moves forward with a plan to spray the glyphosate-based herbicide Rodeo on 57 acres of reeds or Phragmites at South Cape May Meadow in September 7. The Corps will then begin burning dead stalks during the winter and plant marsh vegetation determined to be beneficial to the area in the springtime. It is slated to be a two-year program. Another 43 acres would be sprayed in September 2005.

However, Jane Nogaki, the Pesticide Program Coordinator for the NJ Environmental Federation, disagrees with the Army Corps of Engineers’ approach to the invasive problem of phragmites.. The Environmental Federation is a non-profit citizen-based organization fighting to protect natural resources and clean up pollution in New Jersey. NJEF is the New Jersey chapter of Clean Water Action, a 30-year-old national organization based in Washington, DC. The group opposes the use of Rodeo or “glyphosates in wetland restoration projects such as Cape May Point because there are too many hazards associated with the pesticide.”

phagmitesontrails1Additionally, the group feels the drift caused by a burn planned for winter could “pose risks of drift and fire hazards to the surrounding neighbors.”

phagmitesontrails2Finally, Nogaki points out that the use of pesticides and the burning of stalks has proved ineffective in the past in controlling Phragmites. Similar techniques were used on the Delaware Bay in Salem and Cumberland counties. The spraying of glyphosate-based herbicides has been used there since 1996 and the reeds still survive.

“There are two results of using pesticides,” said Nogaki in a recent telephone interview, “One is that the pesticide is so successful it wipes out all vegetation for two years. There are many birds and butterflies that feed in that area. Where do they go? Secondly, the project is only partially successful in which case they will be forced to repeat the process, 2,3,4,5 years, and the habitat will be pummeled with pesticides.”

Again, she cites the Delaware Bay in Salem and Cumberland counties. The restoration project there was planned for one year. It began in 1996 and is still on going and expected to continue until 2112.

phagmitesontrails3NJEF instead, recommends mowing, which they acknowledge may be more labor intensive but far more effective in that other plant life is allowed to grow.

Another government agency – the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Habitat Improvement Program, or WHIP, has provided one local resident with funding to explore alternative methods to the use of herbicides. According to an article that appeared in The Press of Atlantic City, August 21, WHIP provided Middle Township property owner Dr. Russell Down with a grant of $2,500 to mow seven acres of Phragmites for five years. Dr. Russell uses an old walk-behind mower with a single whirling blade powered by an 8-horsepower engine to keep his 49-acre Bayside property in check.

Dr. Down’s idea is that mowing the thick reeds allows other species a chance to root, thereby permitting a more natural diversity of plant life. Down started cutting the Phragmites down in 1999 and has been able to control three quarters of the seven acres.

phagmitesontrails4One thing all parties agreed on is the fact that Phragmites are invasive and if allowed to go unchecked will alter the biodiversity of the area. They create a “monoculture” in which no other plants can survive.

At a recent presentation by the Army Corps of Engineers held at West Cape May Borough Hall, the use of herbicides and the burning of stalks received the stamp of approval by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as well as The Nature Conservancy, Cape May Point State Park, and the State Department of Environmental Protection.

A representative of the Nature Conservancy Jay Laubengeyer was quoted in an article that appeared in The Press of Atlantic City on August 17 in support of the Army Corps of Engineers’ project. Laubengeyer noted that the Conservancy, which owns the land trust, has taken over 10 years to analyze the project and concluded that “It’s either support the project or watch the biodiversity go downhill.”

NJAS’ Department of Conservation, however, seems to take another approach. Eric Stiles, vice president for conservation and stewardship for NJAS e-mailed with a summary of the NJAS’s position on the proposed Phragmite treatment plan. It concludes: “This project could potentially create a significant amount of valuable habitat in an area that is critically important to wildlife. However, the proposed management strategies may negatively affect significant populations of wildlife, including endangered species and rare plants.

“NJAS believes that additional attention should be given to expected impacts on wildlife and human visitors, timing of the herbicide application and strategies for replanting and restoring the area after phragmites removal. Absent this additional information, New Jersey Audubon has serious reservations and concerns about the Phragmites removal project as planned.”

phagmiteslake3Local resident Barbara Skinner calls the Army Corps of Engineers’ project “asinine” and is anxiously trying to organize concerned citizens who are interested in learning more about the September 7 project. She can be contacted at 609-884-3951.

“The timing of this,” she said, “couldn’t be worse. They’re going to start spraying right after Labor Day and the burn is scheduled right before the fall migration. This could affect the migration of the monarch butterfly as well as fish” and other species which make the Lower Cape May Meadows their home.

On Aug. 3, Cape May City Council passed a resolution urging the Army Corps of Engineers to use mechanical means to remove the phragmites instead of spraying them. The resolution states that spraying “might pose a risk to humans and non-targeted species.”

The area in question is approximately 350 acres and contains Cape May Point State Park and the Cape May Migratory Bird Refuge. The first area to be targeted for spraying is near the concrete bunker in the park. The other area is further east near the Cove beach. An additional 27 acres will be sprayed using a truck. Approximately one acre will be hand-sprayed by workers.

A contractor will conduct the aerial spraying and the New Jersey Forest Fire Service will conduct the burn. Both projects are expected to take several hours to complete.

Project Manager for the Army Corps of Engineers J. Bailey Smith said recently in a telephone interview that “spraying is not unsafe. The herbicides are absorbed more effectively” by the phragmites’ rhizomes or root system which moves horizontally and spreads quickly. The plan is to dispense the herbicides by helicopter with an aerial spray in September and use “hand application methods” in 2005.

“When we use the term aerial spray, it’s really not spraying. They’re droplets” as opposed to a spraying mist and will be dropped by the helicopters hovering only a few feet off the ground, for better control and concentration.

“The herbicide will be applied in such a manner,” said Smith, “as to not affect other natural vegetation.” Smith further attests that the herbicide has “no effect on living organisms” such as humans, butterflies and birds which are prone to make Cape May Point and the lower meadows their home or respite.

Nogaki disagrees and said NJEF is looking at “every avenue” available to them to stop the September 7th spraying.

Waiting for Isabel in Cape May…

Tuesday, September 16, 2003


Cape May City loads would-be flying benches to be taken to a secure place.


Gulls gather to squawk about their plans at Second Street Beach.

September 17


Sunny, windy, warm- no visable signs of a storm at 2pm, except the surf.


There’s a clue: Henry’s is closed.


Wind is starting to swing signs against a sunny sky.


But it’s not windy enough to discourage the start of a major repainting of the Columbia House.

September 18- 9am


Waves are starting to get bigger at Broadway.


Despite the wind kicking up stinging sand, people are still walking the beach at the Cove.


Beach boxes are being removed.


Steger’s Beach- empty and very windy.


Many homes and businesses along the beach front have been boarded up.

September 18- Surfers…Crazy!







September 18









September 19 – Day After Isabel








Desalination: Cape May Leads the Northeastern U.S.

“Water, water, everywhere —nor any drop to drink…”*

Cape May’s Desalination Plant’s no Albatross!

*Apologies to Samuel Taylor Coleridge and his legendary poem “Ryme of the Ancient Mariner”

desal1There can be no debate, water is the sustenance of life. As the world’s population and demands increase, natural resources deplete. Today’s worldwide water crisis has forced mankind to push nature even further. What would have been impossible just decades ago, is fast becoming the norm — turning salt water into fresh.

It is ironic, the city famous for Victorian tea tours and 19th century gingerbread houses, recently implemented cutting-edge technology with a desalination (also called reverse osmosis) plant and is calling the shots in supplying water to other municipalities. Cape May City now holds the distinction of being the only city in the northeastern United States to possess such a plant. Desalination is the process of removing salt and other minerals from briny water. This reverse osmosis technology has been employed in the southern states including the towns of Nags Head, Newport News, and Key West, all facing similar water shortages.

To understand Cape May’s water woes, one has to probe the ground underneath to the subterranean aquifers where the municipality has drawn its water from for over a century — aquifers which are actually layers of sand and gravel about 50- to 150-feet thick, separated by clay. Water travels through these at 10- to 15-feet per day.

Desal4003ltIn the early 1900s, wells driven in Cape May City to the Cohansey aquifer provided fresh water supply for the town. Through the years, the town prospered and grew and water needs were met. But by the 1960s, wells 1 and 2 had to be abandoned due to salt water intrusion.

Carl Behrens manages the plant

Carl Behrens, Cape May’s desalination plant manager, said as more wells were dug and water drawn, it placed a strain on the underground water supply. Behrens said pumping in wells leaves a cone of depression that gets bigger and as the cone of depression increases, the aquifer level lowers below sea level, and salty water encroaches.

“It’s a matter of pumping more than nature can replenish,” Behrens said.
Wells 3, 4 and 5 were drilled inland to avoid saline contamination. In the late 1960s, well 3 showed signs of contamination and was abandoned. By the 1980s, well 4, too, showed signs of salt water intrusion.

Cape May has a year-round population of 6,800 that mushrooms to 43,000 during the summer. If the city had done nothing, the wells would continue to be tainted by brackish water not fit for human consumption, and residents and tourists would be severely impacted.

Desal400optrIn 1995, Cape May City Mayor Dr. Edward Mahaney was informed by the Southern Cape DESAL Water Advisory Commission, a group studying the city’s water supply problem, that unless something drastic was done, Cape May’s last uncontaminated well would experience salt water intrusion by 1998.The city hired the engineering firm of Metcalf & Eddy Inc. to evaluate and propose a solution to the water supply problem.

The study, finished in April of 1996, proposed six alternatives, one being the construction of a reverse osmosis desalination plant with two new wells dug into the 800-foot Atlantic City Sands Aquifer, the deepest aquifer yet to be penetrated in Cape May County. The water wasn’t wholly pure, more a brackish mix of salt water, but the city believed by reducing the demand on the largely-tapped Cohansey Aquifer, salt water intrusion to Cape May would be slowed.

“The study’s primary and only realistic option to ensure a potable water supply was to build a desal plant,” Mahaney said. The city contacted state legislators and Robert Shinn, New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection Director.

Mahaney provided testimony at a hearing about the statewide water supply plan. Shinn reviewed Mahaney’s testimony and modified the state plan to incorporate a desalination plant for Cape May, making the city eligible for state and federal loans. Throughout the talks and negotiations with state officials, city council kept the public abreast of the desalination plant’s progress. Mahaney said the public approved of the city’s actions for the plant, a factor which made was the plant’s construction such a large success.

“The public overwhelmingly supported it. The public had heard over 20 years that there was an impending problem, but the way we presented the issue to the public, with experts in the field explaining where the potential water supply was, the public saw we had a plan and were willing to support our effort,” he said.

The city did have a plan. In June of 1996, the city awarded Metcalf & Eddy a contract to design and supervise construction of Cape May’s desalination facility. With the plant dovetailed to the state water plan, grants poured in.

desal2The United States Department of Agriculture provided a $1 million grant and a $2 million 40-year low-interest loan at 4.5 percent. The city also received $250,000 from the governor’s office and $1.7 million through the New Jersey Infrastructure Trust. Total cost for the desal plant: $5 million, the largest capital improvement in Cape May’s history.
“By being very aggressive and securing funding we put a state of the art plant within our economic ability and the rate payers didn’t have to pay for it,” Mahaney said.

In late 1997, the first of two wells were drilled and the plant’s construction began in April in 1998 and started operation in July. Housed in the Cape May Water Works, a brick façade built in 1926, the desalination plant is a towering system of elongated filters and pipes coursing with rushing water. The cavernous water works teems with pipes, pumps and computer wizardry, as water from the city’s wells travels through the reverse osmosis system.
The plant is entirely automated through Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) and probes linked to a computer bank monitor the systems valves and pumps which produce 750,000 gallons of water a day in the off-season and 2 million gallons a day in the summer.

The chemicals antiscalent, sulfuric acid, hydrated lime, sodium and chlorineare used to treat the water. Chlorine, the heady-scented chemical known to every swimming pool owner, is used to treat water and helps eradicate such naturally-forming bacteria and minerals.
“We constantly monitor the quality of our water,” Behrens said. “We’re checking for any kind of contaminant you can imagine. Even though you smell chlorine in the water there’s less chlorine in your water now. “Reverse osmosis is a process where brackish water is forced through a tiny, permeable membrane at 250-pounds per square inch, lessening the salt and solids in the water by as much as 98-percent of salts and solids. The membranes of thin film composites are wrapped in a spiral pattern and stored in massive tubes stacked in arrays.

Twenty pumps of various types and sizes move the water through the plant at 650-gallons per minute. Residue cleansed in the filtration process is flushed out into nearby Cape Island Creek and the effects closely monitored by New Jersey’ Rutgers University.
“A lot of people come and look at this plant,” Behrens added. “I do believe you’ll see reverse osmosis units up and down the coast in the future.” Fifteen graduate students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) recently toured the facility.

Mahaney said Cape May’s desalination plant effectively provides water not only for year-round residents, but adequately handles the ballooning population of during the summer tourism season. Instead of a temporary short-term fix, the reverse osmosis technology will give the city a potable water supply for decades.

“We’ve assured our autonomy in providing water to our residents. The option council went through to build the desal plant wasn’t ingenious. It was an option to guarantee a water supply for a large period of time,” Mahaney said
Desalination technology was so effective that during the summer of 1999, when a torturous drought plagued the region, Cape May’s subterranean wells and desalination pumping station ran at full capacity.
“I am proud to be part of a solution that will last long past our lifetimes,” Mahaney said. “The desalination plant has moved Cape May to a leadership position statewide and nationally on water supply,” Mahaney said. “We’re in control of our own destiny. If we didn’t have an adequate water supply, it would damage our tourist industry. Now, we’re going to be the model for other towns experiencing similar problems.”