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Jersey Article


$60 million a mile, N.J. dredging stirs a funding debate.
A costly sand renourishment project stirs debate over
public access and government spending.

By Michael Grunwald
The Washington Post

SEA BRIGHT, N.J.---The signs stood along Ocean Avenue like a row of guards: NO STOPPING. NO STANDING. NO PARKING. Dery Bennett snorted and parked his truck anyway.

He crossed the highway to a similarly decorated wooden stairway: PRIVATE PROPERTY. NO TRESPASSING. Another snort. He climbed the stairs over a sea wall and strolled onto a spacious beach. The waves of the Atlantic slapped the shore. A salty breeze rustled his steel-wool gray hair.

"Nice," sighed Bennett, 68, the sun-seared director of the American Littoral Society, an environmental group in neighboring Sandy Hook. "Too bad we had to break the law to get here."

Sea Bright, just below Sandy Hook about 25 miles south of New York, is not the first town with an inaccessible public beach, but this is no ordinary beach.

This beach was built by the federal government, by pumping sand--half a million dump trucks' worth of sand--from the ocean to the foot of the sea wall. It is the first product of the largest and costliest "beach nourishment" project ever, an effort to replenish all 127 miles of the fast-eroding Jersey shore and keep them replenished for 50 years.

The project ultimately could cost as much as $9 billion, and the federal government would pay 65 percent of that. To critics such as Bennett, that is a recipe for a beachfront boondoggle, symbolized by the strict no-access signs here in Sea Bright. Even the project's ardent supporters concede that when American taxpayers restore a beach in a coastal community, it should not be so hard for them to reach.

"I have to admit, the limited public access bugs me, too," said Ken Smith, 53, a real estate agent and coastal lobbyist who represents Sea Bright and 15 other Jersey shore communities. "Sea Bright's beach is open in name, but it's not really open."

The battle in Washington over beach nourishment is heating up like sand on a summer day, pitting budget officials, environmentalists and taxpayer groups against coastal congressmen. New Jersey has been by far the most aggressive state pursuing federal "sand dollars," but Florida and California are pushing for help for their mammoth coastlines, with equally mammoth budget implications.

President Clinton's budget aides want to pull out of the beach-building business, or at least shift more of the costs to the states and communities that enjoy most of the benefits. Environmentalists complain that federal funding may encourage even more construction along the
famously overdeveloped New Jersey coast, and warn that ecosystems often suffer when humans try to overrule nature. They also point out that the ocean level is slowly rising; Bennett once predicted that Sea Bright's 250-foot-wide beach would wash back into the ocean within a year.

But Bennett was wrong. The beach has lasted more than three years already, and the U.S. Army Corps of  Engineers does not expect to replenish it again for another three. Here in Sea Bright, a brutally exposed three-mile ribbon between the Shrewsbury River and the Atlantic Ocean, the town's 1,700 residents believe the new sand infusion has protected Ocean Avenue as well as shore-front homes that once were inundated almost every time it rained. It has also raised property values and provided an enjoyable beach for residents, without attracting too many summertime outsiders notorious for urinating in their yards.

"It's been a godsend for this community," said Sea Bright borough councilor Jack Keeler. "It's helped businesses. It's saved homes. It's really improved the quality of life here."

The current plan is designed to protect boardwalks and buildings along the entire Jersey shore, from Sandy Hook, across the bay from New York City, down to Cape May, across the bay from Delaware. The plan calls for sand to be pumped along all 127 oceanside miles (Plus about 25 more bayside miles) by 2003, and periodic renourishment to continue until 2045. Projected costs are about $60 million a mile.

"The fact is, people in these towns hate taxes, so the feds need to step up to the plate."
Ken Smith, lobbyist for Sea Bright

The Jersey shore, once a Gilded Age getaway for the New York and Philadelphia elite, has evolved into a mixed-income strip of resort towns. Sea Bright falls somewhere in the middle, with a median income of $45,000. A fishing village in the 19th century, it later became a popular summer destination for "bennies," the shore nickname for day-trippers from the Bayonne- Elizabeth-Newark triangle.

During the 1980s real estate boom, the town's focus shifted away from its visitors, as developers tore down most of the marinas and bars to build unit condominium complexes. Today, 45 percent of its residents are white-collar commuters.

There is another obvious explanation for Sea Bright's shift from summer beach town to year- round bedroom community: The beach disappeared. Long ago, the town built jetties to block the northern drift of sand--which did not stop erosion, and possibly accelerated it.

By the time the nourishment began here in 1995, the ocean was lapping at the sea wall at high tide. Even during mild storms, television reporters would race to Sea Bright to record stand-ups in their hip boots, knowing they would find torrential floods and distraught homeowners.

"The TV people still come, but there's not much for them to talk about anymore,"said Anthony Ciorra, the Army Corps of Engineers manager in charge of the project's first phase, from Sea Bright to Manasquan Inlet. "The beaches are performing even better than expected."

Sea Bright has an attractive beach along its entire shoreline, one mile of it controlled by private clubs, the other two miles open to the public.

The only problem is getting there. Sea Bright officials initially opposed the sand-pumping program because they thought their town would be inundated with out-of-towners. They finally acceded after being assured they would have to build only one parking lot for 400 cars. Other- wise, there is virtually no public parking in town. Bennett pointed out many of the stairways over the sea wall are privately owned, too.

"The new sand made this a happier town, that's for sure," said Lance "Chick" Cunningham, a local marina owner who is also chairman of the planning board. "But the benefits haven't really extended to anyone outside of town. You could say it's someone else's money well spent. "What are you going to do, buy all the houses along the coast and tear them down?"
Bernard Moore, engineer

That's what the Office of Management and Budget says. It wants to eliminate funding for new nourishment projects and studies, and to reduce the federal share of "renourishments" to 35 percent. This year, New Jersey's House members are pushing for $41 million for beach projects; the administration, which helped overhaul the national flood insurance program in a similar effort to reduce bailouts of coastal properties, is offering only $12 million.

"It's bad enough that people are building houses along the coast," said Bennett. "Why should our tax money protect them?"

That rhetoric infuriates advocates such as Sea Bright lobbyist Smith and Bernard Moore, the state's top engineer on the project, who believe beaches are public infrastructure, like roads and sewers. New Jersey beaches receive about 160 million visits annually. As for houses along the coast--well, they're already built, so they ought to be protected.

"What are you going to do, buy all the houses along the coast and tear them down?" Moore asked. "Fine. You're going to have to start printing million-dollar bills."

Smith and Bennett are the leading voices in the New Jersey's beach battles, and they are not friends. Bennett calls Smith a "shill for the real estate industry"; Smith calls Bennett a "lousy misanthrope."

But in separate interviews, both conceded they have common ground. Bennett acknowledged the sand-pumpinghas held up better than he predicted. Smith confessed he thinks the federal government shouldersfar too much of  the cost of nourishment projects.

In a better world, Smith said, the state would pay more, and he has pushed for that. Ideally, he said with a joking whisper, some of the well-off, low-tax coastal towns he represents would pay their fair share as well. He has never even tried to push for that.

"The fact is, people in these towns hate taxes, so the feds need to step up to the plate," Smith said. "I know, it's not fair. No question about it. I just want to see these projects happen so badly, it colors my thinking."

In Southwest Florida, a different mix

Erosion is a continual problem on Florida's Gulf coast, which depends on its beaches for tourist dollars that are an important part of the local economy.

In Southwest Florida, beaches from Anna Maria, in northern Manatee County, on south to Lee County and beyond have needed periodic rebuilding.

Federal dollars are contributed to some beach renourishment projects, but local and state tax dollars are heavily used as well. For example, Longboat Key created a special taxing district to fund work on its beaches. In Sarasota County, a portion of the tourist tax goes to renourishment projects. In addition, the state provides grants.

On the other hand, the federal government paid for most of the $18 million restoration of Venice Public Beach in 1996.

Charlotte County has not had a beach restoration project in recent years.

Congress reportedly is ready this week to approve a plan for future beach maintenance funding in Southwest Florida. Details are still being worked out.


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