Along the Bayshore, people often say they live on either the "wet" or the "dry" side of Route 36. The distinction was particularly apt during Superstorm Sandy, which brought flooding primarily to communities north of the highway, which runs east to west along a working-class stretch of Monmouth County, New Jersey.
Highlands officials are dreaming of eliminating the distinction in the borough with arguably the most ambitious flood-control measure of all: raising the entire downtown.
In their vision, not only would every residential or commercial front door go up at least 10 feet a process that already has begun in many parts of the Jersey Shore but every curb, crosswalk and blade of grass would as well.
By their own estimates, the process would cost less than $200 million, take two years to complete and require millions of cubic yards of fill, consisting of either dredged material from Raritan Bay, chunks of concrete from construction sites or lots of barges full of gravel and dirt.
"The cost of doing nothing ultimately would be much higher," said Mayor Frank Nolan, who lost his own house to Sandy and lived in a shelter for several days after the storm.
The idea seemed to grow credence earlier this year when the Army Corps of Engineers agreed to consider it as part of a feasibility study of the best long-term way of dealing with flooding in Highlands. But those dreaming of all of Highlands finally living up to its name, not just its more elevated southern end, may be setting themselves up for disappointment.
"It's a very expensive option," David Gentile, the study's project manager, told the Asbury Park Press. "It would carry an enormous cost that may not be outweighed by its potential benefit."
A draft of the study which is also looking at more traditional flood-control measures like berms and bulkheads is due to be complete by 2015, said Gentile, who anticipates a public meeting on the issue either this fall or winter.
Those who criticize the proposal for being outlandish and expensive fail to fully consider one reason the concept could work better in Highlands than in most other waterfront communities: the borough's unique topography, said Steve Szulecki, who heads the municipality's Environmental Commission.
Like Atlantic Highlands, its neighbor to the west, the borough gets its name from a ridge that begins to ascend roughly halfway between the bay and Route 36. Much of the downtown area that is prone to flooding even on a dry night when the moon is full and the tide is high is in a crescent-shaped area below the ridge that was previously a marsh.
Unlike other waterfront communities where it could be difficult to define the edge of where to stop dropping fill, Szulecki would raise Highlands from the beginning of the hill to the bay's edge, following the Federal Emergency Management Agency's new elevation guidelines of 11 feet.
Given the possibility that sea levels will rise over the next 100 years because of climate change, Szulecki thinks it would make sense to raise Highlands a couple of feet higher than 11 feet, just to be on the safe side.
"Highlands lends itself to this kind of approach," he said. "The boundaries are very well defined."
Under the plan, Highlands would be elevated not in one shot, but in 500-foot-wide slivers. Once all the structures in a section are elevated, workers would build a retaining wall at its edge and then fill it in, installing new utility connections along the way.
Residents of the sliver being worked on would be relocated to a temporary camp for about a month, Szulecki said.
"Your degree of disruption would depend on whether you're in that swath or near it," said Szulecki, who figures that some property owners may elect to rebuild once their sections are complete. "Some bungalows may not be worth lifting."
The cost estimate of $150 million to $200 million is based on elevating Highlands 8 to 10 feet, Szulecki said. Elevating it 11 feet or more would hike the project's cost, Szulecki said.
The Army engineers plan to spend that much to create dunes and other coastal defenses along the northern and central beaches of Ocean County. And it will cost an estimated $101 million to build and fix the dunes on the 18 miles of Long Beach Island.
With thousands of miles of vulnerable shoreline in the U.S., it is unclear why Highlands should be more qualified than other locations to receive hundreds of millions of dollars in federal assistance for such a project, said Rob Young, director of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines at Western Carolina University.
All the real estate in the borough is valued at $574 million post-Sandy, according to assessment records. Highlands raised $15 million last year from property taxes for local, school and county operations.
"If Highlands had to come up with every dime for this thing, they would probably have to think about this a lot harder," Young said. "Maybe we should elevate all of New Jersey. I mean, where do you stop?"
Should the Army engineers not back the elevation proposal, it could prove difficult, if not impossible, for Highlands to attract federal tax dollars for the project, Young said.
"We shouldn't be rebuilding any place that used to be a marsh," Young said.
Aside from the elevation concept, the Army engineers' study is evaluating the installation of both new berms in critical areas and bulkheads in front of existing ones that have deteriorated, Gentile said.
Bulkheads added in recent years that are still in good shape would be topped off with concrete caps to increase their defenses against storm surges, said Gentile, who noted that the study is taking into account the potential for seas to rise and the intensity of storms to strengthen over the next few decades.
"We go out at least 50 years to evaluate the economic life of a project," Gentile said. "We're not going to do something that wouldn't be a good investment."
Szulecki envisions a combination of federal, state and local tax dollars and private investment to fund the project.
"Should this happen, there would be a fair amount of redevelopment in town," Szulecki said. "Highlands would have the pick of the best developers. They'd all be banging down our doors."
Carla Cefalo-Braswell, the president of the Highlands Business Partnership, said she has a difficult time envisioning the elevation plan actually coming to fruition.
We're talking millions and millions and millions of dollars," Cefalo-Braswell said. "I just don't see that happening."
Should the elevation plan not pan out, many of the commercial storefronts along Bay Avenue may end up rising at least 10 feet into the air to comply with FEMA's new flood elevation standards. Cefalo-Braswell fears that a mishmash of stairs, ramps and platforms could scare away future shoppers and merchants.
"The design standards will be critical. We need things to be uniform," she said.
Acknowledging that elevation would be years away from completion under the most optimistic of circumstances, Highlands recently issued a $4.4 million bond to pay for various flood-control improvements, such as new pumps, improved drainage systems and new "duck flap" devices at critical locations that would allow water to drain out of Highlands while keeping potential surges from the bay from entering, the mayor said.
But the improvements that will come out of the bond work will help Highlands fight off flooding only during high tides and full moons, not something as catastrophic as Sandy, Szulecki said.
Szulecki's inspiration for the idea was Galveston, Texas, which was raised by several feet after a hurricane in 1900 killed thousands of residents. He said he tried to convince others of the need for Highlands to be elevated even before 2011's Hurricane Irene, but few heeded his call.
"At the time, it seemed as though we would be using a 1-ton hammer to drive in a nail," Szulecki said. "Now, it doesn't seem so out of proportion."