AVON, N.J. - Many Jersey shore towns pummeled by Superstorm Sandy have been racing to rebuild their beachfronts and boardwalks, hurriedly preparing for the upcoming summer season.
But things have not gone so smoothly in Avon.
Unlike its next door neighbour Belmar, which has already rebuilt nearly half its boardwalk, Avon is lagging behind other shore towns, dogged by its on-again, off-again handling of a deal to rebuild a boardwalk restaurant, a court injunction over a 1/8th of an inch difference in the size of boards between one company's bid and another's, and a protest by environmentalists over the town's plan to use rainforest wood to rebuild the walkway.
The result is a race to the finish line that has borough officials and residents nervously counting the days until summer crowds once again flock to the shore, wondering if the small Jersey shore town will be ready. Avon awarded a contract for just under $1.5 million last week to rebuild the walkway; work could start next week.
"It's disappointing," said Danielle Magrini, an Avon resident out walking her dog on the beach because there was no boardwalk to stroll upon.
"I don't think we're going to be ready," added her husband, Mike. "We're already in mid-February. I just don't see it happening."
Mayor Robert Mahon is cautiously optimistic that despite the delays, Avon's boardwalk will be ready by Memorial Day.
"The boardwalk will be there," he said. "It's going to be close."
The trouble began in early January when Avon sought bids for the reconstruction of its 6/10-of a mile boardwalk, which, like many walkways in the region, was destroyed by the Oct. 29 storm.
After Avon awarded a contract for the work to one firm, a competitor took Avon to court, saying the bid process was flawed. After the town issued its specifications, several companies called to ask if they could use a different thickness of wood, a 1-inch board instead of the 7/8-of an inch called for in the specifications.
Avon issued a clarification saying either size was acceptable. Citing a technicality in the bidding process, one of the firms sued, and Avon decided to reject all the bids it received and start over. That cost it between two and three weeks.
Soon afterward, another controversy arose over the reconstruction of the Avon Pavilion, a boardwalk restaurant and retail shop that has been a fixture in town for decades. Citing damage from the storm, Avon officials voted to terminate the pavilion's lease. Officials said they were obligated by state law to do so after a catastrophic storm.
The businessman who had leased the pavilion for the past 23 years — whose lease still had 13 years left on it — threatened to sue the borough, and residents rallied to his side. Finally, Avon relented and agreed to a shorter lease — 10 years — with the same operator.
But Avon's boardwalk woes still weren't over.
Its bid specifications called for Avon to use ipe, a type of tropical rain forest hardwood that's popular for boardwalks because of its durability, but controversial because of the devastating effects that logging is having on Amazon rain forests. A dispute over use of ipe cost Ocean City, N.J., nearly $1 million in damages when it ordered, then cancelled a shipment of ipe for its boardwalk in 2007.
Belmar had also planned to use ipe in its boardwalk reconstruction, but backed off after an environmental group, Friends Of The Rainforest, threatened a lawsuit. Environmentalists are also threatening to sue Avon to keep it from using the tropical wood, but so far have not acted.
"What they are doing in Avon is self-defeating," said Georgina Shanley of Ocean City, an anti-ipe crusader who helped dissuade her own town from using it. "Using endangered rainforest for boardwalk exacerbates global warming thereby creating more intense storms and hurricanes so that more boardwalks are wiped out."
Mahon defended the use of ipe in Avon's new boardwalk, saying the wood performs well under heavy foot traffic. He also said the contractor has affirmed that the wood carries a certification from a joint industry-environmental association that it was harvested responsibly and in a sustainable manner.
That certification has split the environmental community in recent years. Some argue that the fact that loggers and lumber yards have agreed to consider the sustainability of the rain forests counts as progress. Others, however, say there is no such thing as sustainable logging from rain forests, and that wood from them should remain off-limits.
Mahon has his fingers crossed that the boardwalk will be ready for the summer crowds. The current construction schedule would have it done by mid-May, but bad weather or other unavoidable factors could cause further delays.
"Until it's done, it's going to be cause for concern," he said. "The beach operation is a big part of our town."
Wayne Parry can be reached at http://twitter.com/WayneParryAC