In our November 25, 2013, issue, Jonathan V. Last chronicled the story of Ocean Grove, the New Jersey shore town which was being denied FEMA relief funds to repair damage from Hurricane Sandy. The problem was that Ocean Grove was originally settled as a Methodist campsite and that the town remains nominally Christian—which is to say that it is governed by a “Camp Meeting Association,” which has roughly the power of a garden-variety homeowner’s association. But which also happens to own all of the land.
Like many other towns along the Jersey shore, Ocean Grove had its boardwalk swept out to sea. FEMA stepped in to shoulder the cost of rebuilding the boardwalks in those other towns. But not in Ocean Grove. It said that since the boardwalk technically belonged to the Camp Meeting Association, that made it a private religious “recreational facility” and as such ineligible for aid. Never mind that FEMA had, after earlier storms, helped rebuild Ocean Grove’s boardwalk. Under the Obama administration, there would be a new precedent.
The most plausible explanation for the change in government policy was that Ocean Grove had been in 2007 the site of a minor skirmish in the gay marriage wars. And unlike President Obama, the Camp Meeting Association had not sufficiently evolved in its views.
The town was taken aback by FEMA’s denial. They appealed and were denied again. They then constructed a second appeal, in which they changed the rationale for theboardwalk. Instead of saying that it was a public accommodation (which it is), they claimed that the boardwalk’s essential purpose is to act as “a public thoroughfare in providing emergency access and life-saving operations.” The boardwalk isn’t there for people to enjoy it—it’s there for safety!
After months of dithering (and lobbying from New Jersey’s Democratic delegation in Congress), FEMA has relented. Last week FEMA announced that it now deems Ocean Grove “eligible” for aid. Whether it will actually dispense aid, of course, is a separate question. It’s not clear yet if this represents a genuine reversal by the administration, or simply the kind of empty “compromise” that President Obama has become known for.