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  •   Beach Rebuilding Rides a Popular Wave

    By Graeme Browning
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Saturday, July 22, 1989; Page E01

    BETHANY BEACH, Del. – This small, quiet resort town already has spent $833,000 on a beach replenishment program that even experts say won't last, but town manager Dean Phillips insists the expenditure is worth every penny.

    "Look out there," Phillips said this week, leaning on the railing of the boardwalk that fronts the town center and gesturing toward the north end of the beach, now doubled in width, where families were arrayed on the sand in a jumble of umbrellas, toys and flapping towels. "That's who all this is for -- the next generation, the kids."

    More and more cities along the Eastern Seaboard have begun beach replenishment projects in recent years as a series of devastating winter storms have reduced beaches to strips less than 10 feet wide in some places.

    Proponents say such projects protect valuable real estate and assure the vitality of popular vacation spots like Ocean City, which spent $12 million last summer to replenish eight miles of beaches.

    But the sand-dumping projects have angered some property owners along the Maryland and Delaware coasts because of their high costs. And at least one prominent critic has said that beach replenishment isn't the best way to protect eroding beaches because the added sand quickly washes away.

    All beaches erode, but those pounded by hurricanes and winter storms or pressured by overdevelopment erode more quickly than others.

    In Bethany Beach, for instance, the half-mile-wide beach in front of the boardwalk eroded last summer to mere 30 feet at high tide. When sunbathers began to maneuver between the boardwalk pilings to sit on the sand, town officials temporarily closed the beach.

    Beach replenishment programs aim to slow the erosion by replacing the lost sand. Dredging vessels suck up sand from the ocean floor at locations one to two miles offshore and then pump it onto the beach through huge pipes. As the sand is pumped, bulldozers smooth it into a wide, gradually rising beach. The process takes about one day to complete a section as long as a city block.

    Once a beach has been replenished, it has to be maintained, often at greater cost than the original work. Ocean City and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which developed last year's project, now are seeking $39 million from the federal government to help finance a second, three-year phase of the city's program.

    Supporters defend such costs on the grounds that beaches provide not only entertainment and lay the ground for millions of dollars in annual tourist revenue but also create a storm barrier. "We give Mother Nature a belt of sand and let her play with that, instead of lives," said Nancy Howard, state administrator for the Ocean City project.

    Spending a lot of money on beach replenishment, however, does not guarantee that the newly fortified beach will last, according to Duke University professor of geology Orrin H. Pilkey Jr. In fact, he contends that the battle with the elements is almost always quickly lost.

    Of the 270 replenishment projects Pilkey has studied on 90 beaches, three-fourths washed away in less than two years. Only one project, in Miami, has lasted more than seven years, he said.

    Science has not yet pinpointed why some beaches disappear despite man's best efforts, said Pilkey, director of Duke's Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines.

    "First, any beach replenishment project should be considered simply an experiment," he said. "Second, once you step into a beach replenishment program you have to view it as a long-term commitment."

    Nine miles south of Bethany Beach, Fenwick Island had its beach replenished last summer at a cost of $1.6 million. The shoreline shared by Bethany Beach and Sea Colony, a private condominium development next to the town, was widened in a $2.3 million replenishment program begun the first week in June and ended 10 days ago.

    A second, $1.9-million phase for Middlesex Beach, a private development of single-family homes that adjoins Sea Colony to the south, and the town of South Bethany, next door, is to begin in September.

    The state of Delaware will pay for the programs, either outright or by reimbursing the communities for the money they spend, under legislation that Gov. Michael N. Castle this week allowed to become law without his signature.

    Castle had opposed the legislation, which funds the beach replenishment programs through a 2 percent increase in the state's hotel-motel tax, on the grounds that such programs are the responsibility of the localities that benefit from tourism.

    Tourism means a lot to Bethany Beach, whose population of less than 1,000 residents swells to more than 15,000 in the summer.

    The value of ocean-front property in the area has appreciated 30 percent a year for the last 15 years, according to a study by the University of Delaware.

    Highly paid executives, chairmen of corporations and show business people are drawn to the town's sedate atmosphere, which, unlike the gaudy Ocean City 20 miles to the south, is reinforced by strict deed restrictions against bars and nightclubs.

    Bethany Beach is becoming so popular, in fact, that unimproved ocean-front lots now sell for an average of $500,000, Phillips said. Three large parcels of ocean-front land worth millions of dollars have changed hands in the last year alone.

    Viewed from the vantage of the massive, architect-designed houses north of the boardwalk, the contrast between the stretch of beach that has been replenished and the stretch of beach still waiting its turn is dramatic.

    Hurricane Gloria wreaked havoc on the Maryland-Delaware shoreline in 1985, and when Hurricane Charlie came along a year later the beaches had no time to recover. Fierce storms the following two winters tore away clumps of protective dunes and left the beaches gray and bare, spotted with pools of brackish water.

    With replenishment, the stretch of sand along Bethany's boardwalk is wide, brown and plump. But how long will it stay that way?

    Phillips simply shook his head when asked that question. "The beach is our greatest natural asset. In Delaware we have no other," he said.

    Some Bethany Beach residents have more concrete reasons for supporting the replenishment program.

    At Sea Colony, where the 1,400 units sell for an average of $169,000 each, the only other way to stop the beach from eroding would have been to build a sea wall.

    But Patrick J. Rhodes Jr., Sea Colony's general manager, said, "If you do that you're basically giving up the beach. People come here for the beach and if you don't have it you've got a problem."

    Since the private developments were required to pay their entire cost of replenishing their beaches, each unit owner at Sea Colony was assessed $550, Rhodes said. The total replenishment bill came to $772,000.

    Rhodes said unit owners were "really pleased" with the results. "Buyers are smart today," he said. "They ask questions about things like beach erosion and to participate in this program adds to the value of the units here."

    Opinions were more sharply divided, however, at Middlesex Beach, where the homeowners association engaged in protracted internal discussions and external negotiations with the town's lawyers before agreeing to pay $366,000 to replenish the development's 1,910-foot-long beach.

    The owners of the development's 245 lots "have always fought zealously to maintain a private beach. We are very jealous of our rights," said Robert D. Faw, a retired accountant who is president of the homeowners' association.

    If the development had agreed to replenish its beach as fully as its neighbors have done, the beach would extend past private boundaries and thus become public property, Faw said.

    In addition, the majority of Middlesex Beach's $400,000 to $500,000 houses and retail structures don't sit on the beach and some owners objected to paying assessments as high as $3,700 apiece for the replenishment project.

    Faw said he negotiated a plan to add only 60 percent of the amount of sand used in neighboring projects. The homeowners' association then voted to participate in the beach replenishment "to save face and show we're part of the community," he said.

    In the future, however, portions of the communities themselves may have to move.

    In Ocean City, officials have justified the expenditures for beach replenishment on the grounds that the erosion threatens more than $5 billion of developed real estate. The only other alternatives for communities in the same predicament are to build a sea wall or engage in the even costlier effort to move the buildings back to firmer ground, Pilkey said.

    Environmentalists oppose sea walls because they destroy recreational beaches for the sake of private homes, Pilkey said. North Carolina and South Carolina prohibit the building of sea walls for that reason.

    Delaware officials realize that beach replenishment is "not a permanent fix" and may become less and less cost-effective over time, in the view of Robert Henry, administrator of the Beach Preservation Section of the state's Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control.

    "In simple terms, rather than continuing to try to maintain a beach in the same location, {the solution is to} start moving the structures and let the beach migrate naturally. But that's easier said than done," Henry said.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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