Since this is the Turkey Issue, and since this turkey jumped on a truck owned by Bay Springs Farm Alpacas, the subject of our story on page 18, well, this just seemed like the perfect photograph
Floodgate: The Fiasco
AS A performance venue, the auditorium at Cape May City Hall has a nice feel to it — elegant lines, attractive mouldings, a dramatic gold-leaf tray ceiling, and a generously proportioned stage. It must, at one time, have been a fine place to see a show. We don’t know when the stage, covered by thick gray drapes, had last been used for a performance. But we went there last Wednesday and did see a show of sorts, courtesy of the council members and city solicitor, who took their seats at the magnificent claw-footed table in front of the stage.
If we had to name the show, we’d call it Smokescreen. Why? Because we were left with the abiding feeling that the special meeting the city called to discuss the Convention Hall flood insurance fiasco offered nothing in the way of answers.
First of all, the council immediately announced it would vote to go into a closed session, which frustrated/angered the 20 or so members of the public who had attended, one of them being Jerry Gaffney, a former mayor, who questioned the move.
City solicitor Tony Monzo told him, “We have to discuss if all the codes — federal, state, and local ordinances — were followed. If not, we need to determine who’s responsible. So, there are potential legal matters.”
A member of the public, Charlie Hendricks, the man who blew the whistle on the lack of flood insurance, told the council, “So you’re saying you’re going to be able to figure all that out in the next five or ten minutes?”
Mayor Ed Mahaney replied, “I’m saying we know you’re here and we’ll be back as soon as possible.”
Former mayor Gaffney got back up and asked the solicitor, “You’re calling this possible litigation, Tony?”
Monzo: “I don’t want to classify it as that.”
Gaffney: “That’s a stretch. I wish to raise an objection to this. I think that it’s not proper, and someone higher up should be made aware. Maybe the DCA [Department of Community Affairs] in Trenton.”
Nevertheless, the vote began, with Deputy Mayor Jack Wichterman saying, “I also questioned whether or not this should be in closed session. It wouldn’t upset me at all if this weren’t done in closed session, but I’m not an attorney.” He voted for the closed session.
Council member Bill Murray said, “I’m going to vote no and here’s why. There have been questions brought up by people here, and you happen to be my constituents. You put me into office. You should be afforded time to speak your piece. Do we have flood insurance? A certificate of occupancy? These questions should be open to the public.”
Council member Terri Swain voted yes, saying “It’s important that legal matters be kept private.”
By this stage, the atmosphere was getting a little testy. Mayor Mahaney explained his reasoning for voting for the closed session by saying, “I’m voting yes in order to protect the interests of the people.” This remark brought laughter from Charlie Hendricks, to which the mayor said, “I gave all of you courtesy. This is Cape May; we operate with class and dignity. Don’t laugh at me publicly. Everyone has the right to exercise judgment. As mayor, I’m operating my right. I’m looking out for the safety of those who live, work, and own property in Cape May. Once we speak to you, a multitude of media outlets hear it, and we want to make sure it’s fact before it’s out there.”
This is all well and good, but anyone who has been to as many council meetings as we have in the last few years would have witnessed how rudely Mayor Mahaney has dismissed certain people when he doesn’t like what they’re saying. So, on that count, we call foul.
The fifth council member, Deanna Fiocca, was absent, so the vote to discuss the matter in private went 3-1. And off they went to huddle upstairs, returning about 90 minutes later, with City Manager Bruce MacLeod announcing that, in fact, the city DID have flood insurance, through the Atlantic County Municipal Joint Insurance Fund, of which the city is a member. This coverage, he said, was for $2.5 million. The city hadn’t realized this when MacLeod told a meeting on November 7 that Cape May did NOT have any flood insurance.
He then went on to explain that the city was in the process of finding coverage in the area of $8.5 million, which would be the cost of replacing the building, excluding the “soft costs” that brought the total past $10.5 million.
Tony Monzo added, “Is the construction of the building providing the best rate for coverage? We believe it is, but that analysis is being looked at. If not, who’s at fault, if anyone? The city will be looking into that.”
During the public portion that followed, the mayor was asked how he discovered there was no flood insurance. “Mr MacLeod told me,” he said.
Charlie Hendricks asked the mayor, “After taking credit for the city’s good response to the storm in a news conference, why did you remain silent on the lack of flood insurance?”
Mahaney: “It’s an administrative matter.”
Mahaney: “It’s under the purview of the city manager. If you want to conduct a deposition or file a lawsuit, you’re welcome to do that. This is not a question and answer period.”
So there you have it. The city is discussing a fiasco that could have led to a financial meltdown, and the mayor is telling the public they will have to take legal action to get answers out of City Hall. Doesn’t that strike you as rather chilling?
After a few more questions were asked about who was to blame, Tony Monzo continued the stonewalling by saying, “Respectfully, these answers could involve a level of blame that is premature. If you want information, file an OPRA [a request for access to government documents]. The mayor has been liberal in allowing questions during the public comment, but this should not be a question and answer period due to the legal areas of this matter.”
Charlie Hendricks replied, “Mr Monzo, if I had not asked Mr MacLeod a week ago, does the city have flood insurance on convention hall, we would not be meeting here today.”
Good point. And guess what, folks? After the meeting, two members of the public DID file OPRA requests, and they were denied by the city, citing a law that protects the confidentiality of information relating to insurance policies. Isn’t that convenient?
We walked away from this meeting still needing to know the answers to the following questions…
1. At a previous meeting, Bruce MacLeod said the city had been trying to secure flood insurance since July. How on earth could the city somehow FORGET, until two months after its opening, to buy flood insurance for the costliest building in Cape May’s history? A building that just happens to sit in a high-risk flood zone — that is, the beachfront. Especially since the city pays a retainer to a risk management consultant, the local insurance broker, Marsh McLennan/NIA.
2. Why has FEMA refused to approve the city’s application for flood insurance on two occasions since July? (The city’s architect Martin Kimmel told us recently that it was down to a mistake made by the engineering company in an application form, though this has never been mentioned by the city.)
3. How is it possible that Mayor Mahaney, who is so deeply involved in Convention Hall that the man the city picked to run it quit because he was fed up with the mayor’s micro-managing, did not know until October 29 that the city had no insurance? Does he really expect us to believe that while Bruce MacLeod was trying, and failing, to obtain flood insurance from July onwards, that he didn’t know about it until the day that Hurricane Sandy was due to hit? That’s laughably unfeasible.
We are not going to indulge in idle specualation, but taking into account what Tony Monzo said at the meeting about codes possibly not being followed; and taking into account the fact that the city is refusing to release paperwork that reveals Convention Hall’s elevation above sea level; and taking into account the communications and conversations we have had with some well-informed people over the last week, here is what we suspect… that the pilings for Convention Hall were not set high enough to afford the building the kind of protection that FEMA demands, and the kind of protection which would enable the city to secure a policy that won’t cost a fortune.
If true, the next question would be… when did the city know this? Is it true that they knew the problem with the pilings long before the building was completed but pushed ahead with construction anyway because they were so desperate to meet the Memorial Day deadline they had promised? We have been told this by several different sources, and we are publishing this speculation because we believe the city is indulging in a coverup. If what we are suggesting here is NOT true, then the city should come forward and tell the public exactly what is going on, instead of hiding behind what appears to be a flimsy legal premise.
Whatever the real story is, one thing is certain… the city of Cape May is going to have a humungous insurance premium on its hands — meaning, the taxpayers are going to have to pay dearly for this incompetence. We wonder if anyone in City Hall will end up having to pay, too. As former mayor Gaffney, a veteran of the insurance business, told last week’s meeting, “This is possibly the worst time in history to purchase insurance.”
A Pole-arizing Issue
LONG before Hurricane Sandy, we thought about looking into the feasibility of underground utility lines in Cape May. After the storm, during which so many of us became acutely aware of the proximity of our tree branches to the electric wires just outside our homes, it seems even more apropos. We’ve been reading about places like Gatlinburg, Tennessee, which recently completed such a project in its downtown area. And San Diego, which has been chipping away at the same goal since 1970, and will continue doing so for the next 50 or so years. So we got in touch with the president of Atlantic City Electric, Vince Maione, in order to determine whether it would be a practical undertaking for Cape May as well.
And the conclusion… maybe, maybe not. Undergrounding, it seems, is a topic wrought with pros and cons, and pros that could be cons depending on who you’re talking to, and vice versa. To being with, there’s the cost. “It ranges according to capacity of circuits,” he explained, “meaning how many customers they serve. That can be anywhere from $500,000 to $2,000,000 per mile, and that’s just the electric costs.” Maione reminded us that our phone and cable wires are hoisted 30 feet above ground as well and, at least for aesthetic purposes, it doesn’t make much sense to bury only some. And since we’re in a seaside town, costs could be even higher. “How high the water table is could cause some issues, although it isn’t prohibitive,” he said, “It is a tremendous amount of money.” (In Gatlinburg, property owners were assessed 20 percent of this “tremendous” cost, which amounts to about $1.52 million.)
But there is the possibility that such a project could end up paying for itself. CNN recently reported that Germany, whose lines are all underground, experiences power outages at an average of only 21 minutes per year, which translates to reduced monetary losses for German business. “It’s always possible that undergrounding could have a positive impact,” Maione said, “It’s a long payback, though — 10 to 20 years.”
Bottom line? There’s no way to know for certain if undergrounding is worth it, because there’s no way to predict if the storms you’ll be getting will be frequent and strong enough to knock out your power lines to the point of having a fiscal impact.
What we do know is that when underground lines do go down — and they DO go down, albeit a lot less — they’re down for longer. “They’re not infalliable,” Maione said. “They’re weather-protected, but they do fail.” And sometimes, it takes longer to discover why they’ve failed. “You have to go manhole to manhole, sometimes pumping out water first, and it can take three to four days to accomplish what would take only one day with an aboveground line.” Aboveground wires also last longer, about 60 years as opposed to 30, because they aren’t insulated in the same way.
BUT (we’re beginning to see how, with this topic, for every ‘but,’ there’s another ‘but,’ and this one’s a big one), underground wires do make for a more pristine landscape, especially in a National Historic Landmark City, and more beauty can only lead to more tourist dollars.
As for the little issue of electromagnetic radiation… who’s to say which is a healthier solution? “This issue is hotly contested,” Maione said. “It’s been discussed since the early ’90s. There are electromagnetic and magnetic fields around anything that is energized, that’s just a natural phenomenon of electricity. It dissipates as you go away from the wires, which are typically 30 feet above ground; if you move them below ground, they’re going to be closer to the surface.” We asked him if this means we’re actually safer taking our chances with fallen tree limbs on aboveground wires, and he said, “I’m not saying it’s a con of undergrounding; take that for what it’s worth.”
The Board of Public Utilities will be assessing all of these points in the near future, according to Maione, and providing the state with a cost-benefit analysis. Individual municipalities, he said, have the choice of moving forward on their own, even if the undergrounding is not mandated by the state. So far, only 10 to 15 percent of Atlantic City Electric customers are serviced by underground facilities. In the meantime, Maione recommends a sensible solution: more proactive tree-trimming.
The Alpaca Life
FIREMAN, astronaut, teacher… these are the things you hear when you ask a child what he or she wants to be as an adult. But alpaca farmer? Not so much. Since we have two such farmers, Barbara and Warren Nuessle, in our own backyard (their Bay Springs Alpaca Farm is located on New England Road), we figured we’d stop by to get the scoop on how they came to do what it is they do. Barbara was kind enough to invite us into her kitchen where, from the window, we got a glimpse of her adorable kids (that’s what she calls her animals, all 36 of them) munching on grass and, um, pretending to hump one another just outside (read on, it’s true)…
Are you from Cape May originally? We’re from Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. We used to vacation in Avalon and Ocean City. Then, in the early ’80s, we came to Cape May Point to visit friends. I just thought it was such a neat place; I’m a birder so I thought it was especially nifty. One day, my husband and I were on the beach and we got sunburnt, so I went to look at real estate, and I found a place in the Point. I thought we should take a look, and he said, ‘No, if you like it, buy it, I’m not leaving the beach.’ We had that house for 10 years, from ’83 to ’93, and we kept experiencing hurricanes and a great deal of flooding; that was before Lake Lilly had a pump to prevent it. So we ended up selling that house and kind of desperately looking around. I talked to [realtor] Chris Clemans and said that I would really like to have a farm. Two weeks later, she called and said that my favorite farm on New England Road was being subdivided. The entire space is about 60 acres, and I told her I’d like 10 or so.
Did you have alpacas in mind? I hadn’t made a definite commitment. There were a lot of things in the mix. Horses were my main thrust, and we also considered growing wine grapes, but we had a friend who was doing that, and it’s very labor intensive… it took 15 minutes to harvest from each vine, and then you had to bottle, label, and sell, too. It just seemed like an awful lot of work for retirement. Then, in 1994, I saw alpacas on a farm and became interested. I began attending workshops and seminars to learn how to work with them and figure out how to take care of them, because we were definitely not farmers.
Was Warren always keen on having alpacas? People used to ask how we got involved and he’d say W.I.F.E, and they’d think it was an acronym for something. That was the joke for many years. He’d say to me, ‘This is all your idea.’
And alpacas are less work than grapes? They take care of themselves! You feed them and take care of them for about a half-hour in the mornings and afternoons, and there’s maybe a half-hour of mucking.
Which is? Picking up the poop. They haven’t been totally housebroken, so they do sometimes go to the bathroom in the barn. We have a whole slew of people who take it off our hands. Kim Hannum of the Nature Center just picked up buckets of it, and we have two regular people who compost it and use it as manure; it’s not like horse or cow manure which has lots of weed seeds, we use it all winter on our gardens. And it’s not hot like a chicken manure, where you really have to wait and compost for a year or two. This you can use right away.
Do your alpacas have very different personalites? Oh yes, And they are very smart. I went to a training program once where we taught them within minutes how to pick up rolled-up balls of paper and place in the trash bins, how to turn on and off light switches, and ring a bell. But when I got home, I thought: Do I really want my animals turning lights on and off in the barn all night? That would destroy their composure and mine! But yes, very smart. They’re all halter-trained, they’ve all been to shows, and they’ve all won ribbons. They’re social and pleasant to be around.
Are they affectionate with one another? I love a good love story. Do they mate for life? Oh, those relationships are very fleeting. I haven’t been breeding for a couple of years. The girls will role play. At any given time, you can go into the pasture and they’re trying to hump one another. They make sounds to mimic the guys. It’s some kind of flirtation, but I swear the guys couldn’t care less sometimes. It’s one of the few sounds they make; the other is a high-pitched scream when they’re scared. Like, if they see a turkey vulture, for example. But if a coyote comes around, they’re able to stand tall until the coyote kind of slinks away. They have very few natural enemies here, save for wild dogs.
How big will they get? Alpacas are generally 170 to 180 pounds, but I have some girls who are a little obese. They’re about 225. In fact, everyone calls this the fat farm because we have so many obese girls right now. Normally, they have babies, or creas, and when they’re nursing they use a lot of calories so they stay slim but, as I say, I haven’t been breeding.
Hm, what do the males think of the big girls? Oh, the males like them all sizes! But it’s not that way for the girls. They don’t consider the young males who are not so mature attractive, so they spit them off. The males are very wary of being too aggressive because they know they’re going to get spat on or kicked if it’s not the right time.
Have you witnessed a lot of births? We’ve had 50 or so babies… this is our 13th year after all. The last baby we had was an accidental pregnancy… we had a jailbreak. The boys got in with the girls but it wasn’t their fault; the girls broke down two gates to get to the boys — they are very aggressive, and they were determined. Now we have Mighty Moxie, who was born on September 7. It really takes a village to raise an alpaca. All the animals came to the aid of Moxie’s mother, pushed him under her, and really got things going.
Are they cliquey? I do notice that like colored alpacas tend to hang around one another. It’s either familial or…
The alpacas are racist? Ha.
How long do they live? I used to say 20 years but Calypso was only 12 and extremely arthritic, so it’s hard to tell.
What do they eat? Hay and grass, mostly, and a supplemental grain mix.
You’re probably not supposed to, but do you have a favorite? There is one who had a bell’s palsy condition. He had facial paralysis, and it affected everything on that side of his face. He couldn’t chew, and his ear was flapping around. He had to have his eye removed because of an infection. I was feeding him three times a day with a syringe, but after about six weeks, he decided he didn’t want me to feed him anymore. He’d figured it out, he could gobble up food and store it in his cheek until he was ready. And now he’s regained the weight he’s lost and he’s doing much better. That was such a relief.
Bay Springs is open on Saturdays and Sundays. They sell a great deal of clothing hand-knitted with alpaca fibers, which is comparable to cashmere.