ONE OF the longest-running crimes in Maryland is the assault of man and nature on the once wide and stunning beaches of Ocean City. Twenty-five years ago, you could step off maybe 150 feet in sand from the first of those oceanfront condominiums that were starting to sprout along the 8 1/2 miles or so from the inlet to the Delaware line. Today, the ocean waves often slap the feet of those dwellings, thanks to erosion, storms and reckless development policies. Most property owners -- not to mention the other 350,000 people who frequent this strip in summer -- are staring at a shrinking beach and disappearance of the dunes so vital to preservation of the beaches. Ebb and flow from barrier islands such as Ocean City may be nature's way of deflecting storms and protecting the mainland, but the state of Maryland has recognized the need for massive surgery.

The rescue takes the form of a multi-million-dollar rebuilding of the beaches -- pumping tons of sand onto the beaches and bulldozing it into new dunes. This should created a beach strip extending 265 feet from the water to what the city calls its "construction line." But for the city, state and federal project to get going, all owners of oceanfront property -- most of whom live in Washington or Baltimore -- must approve easements allowing the federal government to work on their properties. Approvals have been won for all but 12 properties -- and these owners are being sued by authorities seeking to reaffirm the state's right to replenish the sand.

It is not a matter of their giving away land to the government. These owners would be allowing the government to improve their property and give them storm protection that could last a century. Money has been committed, bids are due this month and work is scheduled to begin in the spring. A man's home may be his castle, but without the cooperation of these last owners, the homes may be nothing more than sand castles and Ocean City itself a ghost town all year round.