SEASIDE HEIGHTS, N.J. — The question for this tiny barrier island town slammed by Hurricane Sandy is whether an 18-foot-high sand dune would save it or kill it.
Mayor William Akers knows that. Sworn to protect everyone in his quintessential shore town — with a boardwalk chock full of pizza joints, custard stands and arcades — he represents people who want the barrier and others who don’t.
A line of more-modest protective dunes saved the neighboring borough to the south from widespread damage. So Akers might be expected to embrace any plan to protect his battered town, where the roller coaster still sits upright in the ocean and workers are busy replacing the boardwalk in anticipation of the Memorial Day start of the beach season.
But he has grave doubts about the Army Corps of Engineers’ plan: a 300-foot-wide sand dune project along 14 miles of the Jersey shore. Sand dunes will loom over the boardwalk, blocking much of the view. “You can do ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ out there on the beach,” he said.
It will send beachgoers — who swell this town of 2,400 to 30,000 people on summer weekends — elsewhere, he said, along with much of the town’s revenue. “They’re going somewhere else. They’re going to go south,” he said.
As Sandy’s six-month anniversary approaches April 30 and many turn their attention to protecting against the next major storm, the Corps’ plan has provoked the kind of conflict that comes with natural devastation and high property values.
Seaside Heights has been mostly cleansed of sand and debris that washed and blew inland, but Sandy’s damage is still obvious on the beach and boardwalk. An enormous Ferris wheel remains partly detached from its moorings. Video games are heaped outside one arcade. The beach remains off-limits to everyone, cordoned by yellow tape, and police spend increasing amounts of time each weekend shooing away gawkers as the weather improves.
“We need some type of protection,” Akers said. “If it turns out someone shows me a dune and a berm is the best thing, I’m not a stupid man. But I think alternatives need to be explored before we get to that point.”
A Frisbee throw up the coast in the Ortley Beach section of Toms River, perhaps the hardest-hit community in this area, officials have just one of the 22 signed easements the state wants from private-property owners by May 1 to proceed with the project. Aside from their views of the ocean, residents are concerned about restrictions that might be imposed on beach use, and under state law, once a dune is built, it cannot be moved.
The New Jersey Sierra Club thinks dunes will help protect the island but worries about the impact of scouring the bottom of the ocean for sand, said Jeff Tittel, the state organization’s director.
But the Corps’ plan has equally ardent local backers. For three decades, the borough of Seaside Park, the largely residential town of 1,900 that borders Seaside Heights to the south, has kept up a line of protective dunes on its own.
“When that storm hit, those dunes stood up . . . and they saved this town,” said Mayor Robert Matthies. The waves reduced the size of the dunes by half, he said, but homes were saved. As a result, Matthies has embraced the Corps project. But his town does not depend on boardwalk merchants for its revenue.
“A lot of people are starting to understand that without [the dune], we really are at risk,” said Kathy Barisciano, president of the Ortley Beach Voters and Taxpayers Association, who had three houses crash into the rear of her home a half-block from the beach during the storm.
At a town hall meeting on March 26, the state’s outspoken governor, Chris Christie, promised to “start calling names out of the selfish ones who care more about their view than they care about the safety and the welfare of their neighbors.”
“I have no sympathy for your view, no sympathy,” he said.
Sand dunes, often described as fragile by officials trying to keep hordes of beachgoers off them, are effective barriers against waves and wind, according to experts. In conjunction with other measures, such as wide and properly angled beaches, they can sap strength from even a storm as powerful as Sandy.
“The dune takes the wave energy and absorbs it,” said Norbert Psuty, a geomorphologist and director of the Sandy Hook Cooperative Research Programs at Rutgers University, who has been advising local officials in the aftermath of Sandy. “That moves the sand and, in essence, shields what’s behind it.”
Dunes can be installed simply and at relatively low cost, without building stone or concrete sea walls. Christie wants to build dunes on all 127 miles of the state’s coastline.
“The high and wide dunes work. That’s been proven,” said Steve Rochette, a spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers’ Philadelphia district.
The Corps’ plan would provide a dune that is quite a bit larger than a natural ripple in the sand. The entire 14-mile barrier, from Manasquan to Barnegat inlets, would be 300 feet wide, divided into three distinct sections.
On the inland side would be the flat-topped dune, 100 feet wide at its base and narrowing to 25 feet wide at the top. The dune would be 22 feet high, except in Seaside Heights and northern Point Pleasant Beach, where it would be 18 feet high. East of the dune, extending seaward, would be 75 feet of relatively flat berm (100 feet in Seaside Heights), also made of sand. Finally, another 100 feet or more of sloped beach would extend out from the berm to — and in some places into — the water.
The 10.6 million cubic yards of sand needed for the project would be brought from offshore “borrow areas,” 175 acres of dune grass would be planted atop the dunes and 206,000 linear feet of sand fencing would be required, according to a report by Robert B. Flowers, the Corps’ chief of engineers.
The work would cost $62.3 million at 2003 prices (the year the project was designed) and $166.2 million over the 50 years the Corps is promising to replenish the sand. The federal government would pay 65 percent of construction costs and half the upkeep. The Corps had hoped to begin construction in 2007, but funding for it was not authorized, Rochette said. In the aftermath of Sandy, Congress provided the funding.
Akers is between a dune and hard place. Seaside Heights is not a town of the affluent, like nearby Mantoloking. Although 80 percent of its 3,000 houses are second homes, Akers said, they are mostly modest structures. The borough may be known best as the place where Snooki, Pauly D and the rest of the cast of “Jersey Shore” once cavorted.
Financially, the beach, boardwalk and piers are everything. Revenue from beach badges and parking fees provide a big chunk of the town’s $12.5 million budget, but that is almost beside the point. If people aren’t coming for the sand, pizza joints and the rides on Funtown and Casino piers, they aren’t coming.
Akers hopes he can win some kind of modification in the Corps’ plan. The boardwalk is being rebuilt with longer, 25-foot pilings, bigger bolts and hurricane straps to prevent the next storm from ripping it apart as Sandy did, he said.
But Rochette said modifications are not in the cards. Policy requires the Corps “to select the optimal plan, and by that I mean the plan that will reduce the most storm damage for the cost.”
Experts said any kind of discussion about protecting the coast shows the extent to which Sandy has altered the landscape.
“Six months ago, I don’t think you’d have heard [Akers] talking about any kind of shore-protection strategy,” said Michael P. De Luca, senior associate director of Rutgers’ Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences, who is also helping towns prepare for the next storm. “Now he’s got religion, and he’s asking for help.”