Shifting Sands

Beach damage on Long Beach Island is more than a tale of man against sea.

Photo by Marc Steiner/Agency New Jersey.

A tax map of every oceanfront property in Long Beach Township wraps around three walls of mayor Joseph Mancini’s office. Many of the 460 lots are highlighted in green; about 100 are white.

“Everything in green is where we have easements signed for beach replenishment,” Mancini explains. “That’s why this is here. It gives us an idea” of where the project stands.

Sections of the township are next in line to be enhanced with an extra 250 feet of beach and 22-foot-high dunes as part of a replenishment project approved by the federal government in 2005 to save about 18 waterfront miles of Long Beach Island from being reclaimed by the sea. In some locations, the island’s beaches have been reduced at high tide to slivers of sand. In these cases, a strong storm can carve cliffs out of the remaining dunes.

Of the six municipalities on the island, only two—Harvey Cedars and Surf City—have been shored up under the federal project, but not without their own property-rights battles. Some property owners object to the required easements, which give the Army Corps of Engineers and the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) perpetual access to the properties.

Those opposed to signing say they are worried about reduced property values, as well as lost views, breezes and access to the beach due to the heightened dunes. But to Mancini, obtaining the easements is the easier half of the battle. Funding, he says, presents the real challenge. Though Congress authorized more than $70 million for the project, procuring the actual money entails a fight.

Most of the beaches along the eastern seaboard are eroding, and New Jersey’s are no exception. There’s a natural pattern: erosive winter nor’easters are followed by summer westerlies that sweep sand back onto the beach. But the summer wind does not always compensate for winter’s destruction. The result is net erosion, according to a recent report from the U.S. Geological Survey.

For the last 150 years, beach towns have been trying to hold back the sea in order to encourage home-building and tourism. At stake today are oceanfront homes valued in the millions and a $35 billion state tourism industry—of which the Shore accounts for half each year.

Historically, municipalities have built groins—piles of large rocks, steel, timber or concrete—that stretch like long fingers into the water, trapping sand. Jetties are similarly structured and can help, too, although their main function is to protect inlets rather than beaches.

But researchers say that full-scale beach replenishment is far superior to these techniques, because it can transform a narrow beach into one with plenty of room for bathers and recreation.

Unfortunately, replenishment comes with a significant price tag, since high-tech dredges have to suction huge volumes of sand from the ocean bottom and pump it onto the beach. New Jersey has been savvy about finding a way to pay for the work, says Margot Walsh, executive director of the advocacy group Jersey Shore Partnership.

In 1994, after a series of devastating storms, the state passed the Shore Protection Stable Funding Act, which sets aside $25 million annually for beach restoration. Each year, towns and the DEP can dip into this pot for spot repairs. The money also can be used to match federal funds, which are necessary for large-scale replenishment.

If the feds see that money is in hand, they are more likely to approve a joint project, Walsh says. Typically, the Army Corps of Engineers picks up 65 percent of the tab for replenishment. The state and municipalities cover the rest.

Shore municipalities in four counties have benefited from projects completed under this partnership, reclaiming hundreds of feet of beach. Experts cite Long Branch as a prime example of successful replenishment helping to revitalize an entire town.

But on Long Beach Island, says Keith Watson, project manager with the Philadelphia district of the Army Corps, obtaining the necessary easements has been a stumbling block.

Mike Logan and his wife, June, own two properties on Brant Beach, a section of Long Beach Township slated for replenishment. They don’t want to sign the easements—chiefly, they say, because they’re concerned about giving up control of their property.

The Logans and five other recalcitrant beachfront property owners have drawn the ire of other Brant Beach residents in a very public way. Last year, out of frustration, the township posted their names and addresses on the homepage of its website.

“We’ve gotten calls, letters and e-mails,” Logan says. “It puts a lot of pressure on us.” Critics wonder what views the Logans will miss if their house is pulverized by a storm. “People say, ‘What’s wrong with these selfish people?’” Logan says. “But it’s easy for others who don’t have to give up anything.”

Similar battles erupted in Harvey Cedars, where most homeowners thought the $300 offered as compensation for lost views and privacy was inadequate, leading to a smattering of lawsuits.

Court-appointed panels have awarded eight Harvey Cedars homeowners between $7,500 and $500,000; the borough is appealing some of the settlements. The first appeal was settled in September for $150,000.

Replenishment has other hidden costs. In Surf City, the Army Corps had to pay $15.7 million for a cleanup after residents started turning up World War I-era munitions on the beach. These had been unexpectedly sucked up by the dredger from a borrow pit two miles offshore.

Kenneth A. Porro, an attorney who represents 67 oceanfront property owners all over the island, says the majority of his clients would sign their easements if the government entities would offer two concessions: make the easements temporary (rather than perpetual) and lower the dune height so the mounded sand doesn’t block views.

Mancini says it’s unlikely that the DEP and the Army Corps will give in. That leaves Long Beach Township with the option of seizing the properties in question under eminent domain. But none of this will ease the potential fight for federal funding. It’s often a lobbying-intensive affair, requiring visits to Congressional representatives and appearances in Washington.

As of now, there are zero dollars for beach replenishment in the federal budget for the next fiscal year—and with recent public scrutiny of pork-barrel spending, the program’s future is increasingly uncertain.
So the project remains stalled.

Elsewhere on LBI, towns are using stopgap measures to keep the ocean at bay. Last summer, Beach Haven and the DEP installed geotubes—huge textile sacks of sand buried near the high-water line—between Nelson and Merivale avenues, an erosion trouble spot. Homes there are often undermined by storms; a November 2009 nor’easter chewed up 10 feet of blacktop at the end of Merivale Avenue.
That winter was one of the worst on recent record, with a total of nine nor’easters, says Stewart Farrell, director of the Coastal Research Center at Stockton College, which monitors annual changes to the Jersey shoreline. The storms prompted the Flood Control and Coastal Emergencies Fund of the Army Corps to grant emergency replenishment funds for Surf City and four other beaches. Those projects are set to begin in the “near future,” says the Army Corps’ Watson.

But researchers say such piecemeal replenishment is problematic, since sands placed in one town have no buffer to anchor them against a current moving north to south. For instance, sands placed in Harvey Cedars have recently been accruing on the North Beach section of Long Beach Township.

Farrell says the stormy winter of 2009-2010 was dismaying to anyone who bought an oceanfront home in the decade prior, a period of relative calm. Thoughts of the Ash Wednesday storm of 1962 are even further from mind. That storm “cremated” the island, Farrell says, splitting it into three sections as Barnegat Bay flooded and sea level rose. That could happen again, he adds. In fact, Farrell says climate change and rising sea levels have made a storm of similar magnitude a very real possibility.

Kristina Fiore is a staff writer at MedPage Today. She lives in Glen Ridge.

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