SEA ISLE, N.J. — What’s new at the beach this year is that the price of houses is crazier than ever and there aren’t enough horseshoe crabs around to keep the red knots happy.
“They’re paying $2 million for half a house and hoping it goes to $3 million,” said the boss of a construction crew that’s framing in a new beachfront duplex on our street. “They’re going with interest-only loans and planning to get in and out in a year or two.”
Saying much the same thing, Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan recently told the Economic Club of New York that he saw some “froth” in certain regions of the U.S. housing market and “a lot of local bubbles.” Using adjustable-rate and interest-only loans, he said, buyers were “reaching” financially and accelerating speculation in the housing market.
“Without calling the overall national issue a bubble, it’s pretty clear that it’s an unsustainable underlying pattern,” cautioned Greenspan. And pretty clear that a bursting bubble will cause the largest problem for those who were last in putting their chips in the game. “Even if there are declines in prices, the significant run-up to date has so increased equity in homes that only those who have purchased very recently, purchased just before prices actually literally go down, are going to have problems,” he said.
On the more noneconomic side of things, a local problem between red knots and those prehistoric-looking horseshoe crabs is serious enough to grab the attention of the New York Times. It started a few nights ago, on the beach — under a full moon. Or more precisely, nothing started, and that’s the problem.
“On the full moon of the fifth month of the year, horseshoe crabs crawl up on the beaches of the Delaware Bay to mate, as they have for eons,” wrote Tina Kelley, reporting from the quiet Victorian village of Cape May Court House. “A decade ago, they covered the beach as thickly as cobblestones, and flocks of red knots, chubby brown-flecked shorebirds the size of robins, would stop to eat the crabs’ eggs, doubling their body weight before flying nonstop for three days straight to reach Southampton Island in Canada, just below the Arctic Circle. There they would spend a few weeks bulking up again and breeding before flying back to their winter home, Tierra del Fuego, at the southern tip of South America.”
All told, the annual round-trip migration of the red knots covers 20,000 miles. What made the trip more enjoyable was the part at the local beaches of the Delaware Bay and the Atlantic during the end of May and the beginning of June when, as Kelley reports, “mating crabs would kick up the buried eggs of crabs that had already mated.”
Well, here we are several weeks into the peak mating season, and there’s just a measly scattering of crabs — not near enough to satisfy the sizeable appetites of the estimated 12,000 red knots that have arrived as of last week.
“There was no significant crab spawning,” Kelley reported, “and some birds were seen eating clams, considered a sign of desperation.” And of the few crabs that showed up for their annual beach romp — “the gulls had flipped several over and were eating them alive.”
I asked one of the locals — a window installer from Cape May Court House — what he thought about the crab shortage. “I didn’t hear about it,” he said. “I only know about work and Paint Ball.”
In any case, the week ended with the Press of Atlantic City reporting that nine bayfront property owners in Sea Isle, some in their 70s, had received a rather blunt and clumsy letter from the state Department of Environmental Protection. Said the official notification: “The state of New Jersey claims title to your property. The state has concluded that your deed is not valid.”
The problem is that the bureaucrats were just a little behind in their paperwork. “In 1942, the city deeded the land in question to the state for $1 so the state could do a dredging project,” reported the Press. “The land was never legally returned to the city. But the city sold the land to a developer in 1966.”
As it now stands, the fate of the property and the red knots is up for grabs.