$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
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
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
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
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
"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
"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
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.