ATLANTIC CITY - A state official said Thursday the N.J. Department of Environmental Protection will consider decreasing the size of the resort's beach dunes so visitors can once again admire dramatic ocean views from the Boardwalk.
Atlantic City enjoys the protection of a large, nearly continuous grass-covered dune lining its famous wooden way.
But over the years, this manmade dune has grown higher than merchants or visitors would like as it has accumulated more sand. Many of the dunes are so high that the ocean cannot be seen from the Boardwalk. The state previously refused to consider requests to lower the height of the dunes.
City officials and 2nd Legislative District lawmakers met privately with the department Thursday to find a compromise between aesthetics and storm protection.
"The dune is providing shore protection. But we're looking at the dune as it relates to scenic resources and visual access to the waterfront," said Assistant DEP Commissioner Marilyn Lennon, who oversees land use.
Lennon said the newly created Science Advisory Board will examine the city's request as one of its first tasks. The advisory board was created by Gov. Chris Christie to evaluate state policies based on science, but to also consider the costs and benefits of decisions. Several business officials sit on the board.
"We will consider this as part of the new administration's approach at looking at all our rules and regulations," Lennon said. "We realize it's an issue in Atlantic City."
The local officials gave Lennon a tour of the dunes near Boardwalk Hall after meeting behind closed doors for an hour.
The meeting focused on Atlantic City but has larger implications for the rest of New Jersey's coastline, much of which is protected by dunes. The DEP's Lennon said the state would look at the loss of ocean views on a case-by-case basis.
"It doesn't make sense to have a coastal tourism attraction where you can't see the coast," state Assemblyman Vince Polistina, R-Atlantic, said.
Radio personality Pinky Kravitz, chairman of Atlantic City's Boardwalk Committee, said he spoke to Gov. Chris Christie on July 21 about the dunes when the governor announced his proposals to revitalize the city from the bandstand at Boardwalk Hall.
Kravitz said the state was more open to the idea of controlling the size of the dunes Thursday than years earlier, when his committee made a similar request to the DEP.
"I think the city will have the right to maintain the dunes," he said. "We'll have to see what that means."
Merchants are practically unanimous in agreement over the need to curb dune heights, he said.
"I don't know of anyone who likes what they see," he said.
Mohammad Haroon Rashid, owner of a Boardwalk pharmacy and pizza shop, said the dunes are too big and put local businesses at a competitive disadvantage against the resort's casinos.
"The more time people spend on the Boardwalk, the better it is for our business," he said. "If they don't see anything on the Boardwalk, they'll just go in the casinos and spend their money there. The casinos want those customers. We are fighting each other. Sometimes, they are the winners."
Rashid said people are naturally drawn to water views, and the Boardwalk has ample natural beauty concealed by a wall of sand.
"A lot of people come to the Boardwalk from all over the country and say, ‘Where's the ocean?' We say, ‘Jump up and you'll see it,'" he said. "It's a good idea to protect the city from the devastation if there is a flood, but it's too much."
Environmental groups said there is room for compromise on the issue, but noted that taxpayers paid for the dunes and will pay for federal insurance claims from storm damage if the dunes are flattened.
"It needs to be evaluated. It's not as straightforward as cutting off the tops to restore a view," said Tim Dillingham, spokesman for the American Littoral Society. "What they're creating might be a really good view of storm waves that could be coming in to destroy the buildings."
The New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club noted that dunes provide far more wildlife habitat than open beach.
"It's a tough call," spokesman Jeff Tittel said. "By removing the dunes, you're creating the potential for more damage we'll have to pay for through FEMA (or the Federal Emergency Management Agency). All of a sudden, the Boardwalk gets destroyed and it's the taxpayers of New Jersey rebuilding it."
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which has federal jurisdiction over beaches, said it does not object to maintaining dunes in accord with the agency's design specifications.
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