Other Resorts Face Boardwalk Decisions, Too

OCEAN CITY — While the public opinion poll about the future of the Ocean City Boardwalk heads into the home stretch, beachfront communities all over the region continue to wrestle with the same issues, and the types of surfaces being used are as varied and unique as the resorts themselves.

Ocean City is about to embark on a major rehabilitation project for its famous Boardwalk and there are a handful of options on the table including a traditional all-wood surface, an all-wood surface with a concrete train lane stamped to simulate real wood and, the least favorite, an all-wood decking surface with a plain concrete train lane running down the middle.

As of yesterday, the nostalgic all-wood surface was leading the on-line public opinion poll by a good stretch with 6,938 total votes, or around 47 percent, while the all-wood deck with the stamped concrete train lane came in at 5,455 votes, or 37 percent. Only 2,429 voters, or 16 percent, favor the plain concrete train lane.

There are benefits to each option from economic and aesthetic standpoints and each will be weighed carefully when it comes to the final decision. Clearly, the general public favors the nostalgic all-wood southern pine surface, with its familiar feel, look and aroma, but the wood decays rapidly in the seaside salty air. Concrete stands up to the weather much better than the traditional wood surface, but it appears most prefer the nostalgic wood surface at the expense of replacing sections every few years.

There are alternatives available that appear to satisfy each requirement and at least one has gained favor in several beachfront communities along the Jersey Shore, including a Brazilian hardwood called ipe, pronounced e-pay, that is utilized in places like Atlantic City, Ocean City, N.J., and Wildwood, for example. Ipe looks good, lasts for decades, is strong and durable and can withstand moisture and the corrosive effects of salt better than any other species of wood, making it a popular choice for Boardwalk replacements in resort towns and big cities all over the country.

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The Brazilian hardwood is considerably more expensive than the traditional southern yellow pine used on Boardwalks in many resort communities. However, ipe is expected to last for decades, which many believe will offset costly replacements for years to come. In Atlantic City, for example, ipe is being phased in every time a new section of its famous boardwalk needs to be replaced.

“Our Boardwalk is kind of a work in progress,” said Atlantic City Assistant Engineer John Feairheller this week. “All of the new sections have been replaced with the ipe, the Brazilian hardwood, and eventually we will likely replace the entire surface with it, but we still have big sections of the old southern yellow pine out there. It’s an ongoing process and we’re constantly redoing it.”

Feairheller said this week replacing traditional pine sections of the town’s Boardwalk costs around $150 per square foot and several vast sections have already been replaced with several more underway. For example, one section recently replaced is 7,000 feet long and 60 feet wide. That section alone will cost an estimated $630,000, and it’s just about a mile and half long.

“It’s not cheap, so there is a considerable investment up front, but we’re pretty sure the durability will make it worth it in the long run,” he said. “There’s a test section on the Ocean City [N.J] boardwalk that has been down for almost 20 years and it hasn’t show any signs of aging. They have to go along and tighten down the screws every four or five years, but that deck surface could be there for another 50 years.”

While the Brazilian hardwood is clearly more durable than traditional pine, it does have its share of installation and maintenance issues. The decking itself can last for dozens of years, but it has to be compatible with the substructure. For example, Feairheller said the heavy, dense wood cannot be easily laid down on lighter, less dense substructure, adding to the cost of replacing the sections. For that reason, the Atlantic City boardwalk is being replaced with ipe in a piecemeal fashion.

“One of the problems we ran into is the joists and supports have to be compatible with the decking,” he said. “Another problem is making the sections compatible. The ipe is three inches thick and the older pine sections are two inches thick, so you can see where that would be a problem in the sections that abut each other.”

Overall, Feairheller said Atlantic City has been satisfied with the ipe from a durability and aesthetic standpoint, but it is not completely maintenance free.

“There are obvious advantages to it, just as there are some problems with it,” he said. “It’s put down with screws and the screws have a tendency to pull out. It’s extremely durable and it’s holding up wonderfully in the sections where we’ve had it down for a few years.”

Resort towns all over the Jersey Shore including Ocean City and Wildwood, for example, are also in the process of replacing their Boardwalks with the ipe, but the Brazilian hardwood does not come without is share of public relations baggage. The wood is largely harvested from the Amazon rainforest, and although vast sections of forest have been designated and certified specifically for its harvest under controlled and regulated practices, some New Jersey shore towns, such as Ocean City, have battled environmental groups over the use of ipe for its boardwalk to the point lawsuits were filed.

Ocean City, N.J. officials now seek wood from suppliers who have obtained certification from the Forest Stewardship Council, a coalition of lumber industry and environmental groups who strive to improve forestry management practices. Certification means loggers operate in ways designed to damage the ecosystem as little as possible, including not over-harvesting or wasting trees.

In Atlantic City, the potential environmental issues were weighed, but durability and cost effectiveness won out in the long run.

“We were a little under the radar on that issue,” said Feairheller. “In this town, the general feeling is do what you think is best and make the environmental or green decision whenever possible, but we’re also driven by cost, efficiency and durability. We’re trying to shape up the boardwalk in the most cost efficient and attractive way.”

Atlantic City, in some cases, has found a way to offset the cost of replacing Boardwalk sections with the more expensive ipe. For example, a new 800-foot tall casino and hotel is going up along the boardwalk and the developer is footing the cost of replacing the surface in front of the property. The town is supplying the wood and the developer is paying for the installation. The city maintains ownership of the boardwalk, while sharing the cost of its replacement with the developer, who must comply with the town’s standards.

Another mid-Atlantic beachfront community has found a creative way to offset the cost of replacing its Boardwalk. In 2009, New York’s famous Coney Island pier and boardwalk desperately needed to be replaced and city officials decided to go with the increasingly popular ipe. However, the traditional, nostalgic pine boards were salvaged in the process and the wood is being sold as piece of Coney Island history and is being used for decking at private homes, or for outdoor furniture or unique tabletops, for example.

While New Jersey beach towns wrestle with the issues surrounding traditional all-wood boardwalk replacements, Ocean City’s neighbor to the south long ago resolved its boardwalk replacement issues. For decades, Virginia Beach’s beachfront promenade has been made of concrete and not because of any aesthetic or traditional considerations.

“It’s been this way for a long, long time,” said Virginia Beach Operations Engineer Mark Gemender. “Our’s constituted a federally funded hurricane protection project. It’s called the Boardwalk in the loosest sense of the word, but it’s essentially a low concrete seawall with a concrete cap on it.”

Several decades ago, Virginia Beach took advantage of the federally-funded hurricane protection project, the function is which is more practical than nostalgic.

“Its real function is to protect property and infrastructure in Virginia Beach,” he said. “It wasn’t really designed originally with a boardwalk in mind. It was designed to comply with the criteria spelled out in the federal appropriation. We weren’t going to get the federal funding if the project didn’t comply with the criteria. In other words, we did it not just for its entertainment value, but for its property protection value.”

While it lacks the look and feel of a traditional seaside boardwalk, the concrete surface is obviously more practical from an expense standpoint, according to Gemender.

“It needs some maintenance from time to time,” he said. “It gets cracks in the concrete surface that need sealing, but not much more than that. It certainly isn’t something that needs a major rehab every few years.”

Meanwhile, Ocean City’s “Keep the Board in Boardwalk” campaign continues to extol the virtue of the apparent wood decking material of choice for the project. Called DuraPine, the wood being considered is traditional southern yellow pine, but is treated to withstand the pressures of weather, heavy foot traffic, vehicular traffic and, of course, the Boardwalk tram. The public hearing on the final decision is set for March 7.