While Atlantic City has struggled with the consequences of high sand dunes — namely, the loss of ocean views — other municipalities have found a balance between protection and vistas.
Virginia Beach spent years negotiating with the Army Corps before accepting a design that put the height of a proposed seawall at the same elevation — about 13.5 feet — as an adjacent boardwalk, said Phil Roehrs, Virginia Beach’s water resource engineer.
“(The Army Corps) came up with a design that was unacceptable, and it took us five to six years to work through it,” Roehrs said. “It wore them down, and we got a much better project.”
As part of the compromise, Virginia officials agreed to raise the elevation of their Boardwalk by about 3 feet while the corps lowered the height of its proposed seawall by about the same factor. That allowed for the two to share the same elevation, preserving ocean views. Engineers also widened the beach berm to compensate for a lower seawall.
“We argued and negotiated and twisted arms and got a wider beach so the seawall didn’t have to be so high,” Roehrs said.
Atlantic City officials brought up the issue of blocked ocean views with the corps but then endorsed the corps’ design in 1996, project documents show.
It’s unclear whether there was room for negotiation, said state Sen. Jim Whelan, D-Atlantic, who was then the city’s mayor. Whelan said his priority had been to keep the city protected from devastating storms.
“Given the choice between having no dunes and having dunes that are too high, I’ll take the dunes that are too high,” he said recently. “I can see what those storms can do.”
Now, years after the corps installed a dune system in Atlantic City, many residents and officials are dissatisfied with the height of the dunes.
“I wish we could tear them down,” said Tom Foley, Atlantic City’s director of emergency management, who has a background in the Fire Department.
Foley said he is convinced the dunes are unnecessary and would rather see them lowered and the beach widened as a way to protect the shore.
In Norfolk, Va., officials designed a dune system in East Beach to be low and broad even though corps standards would have called for higher dunes, said Lee Rosenberg, the city’s manager for environmental services.
“It’s a calculation of what level of protection do you want and can you achieve?” he asked.
Had the corps been in charge of the project, they would have designed the system differently, and residents would have complained about their loss of views, he said.
“From an engineered standpoint, they can precisely determine level of risk,” Rosenberg said. “What they don’t take into account is the community interest that a locality has to deal with. And so if you have to play ball with them, you have to follow their rules. And if you don’t have to play ball with them, you can write your own rules that balance things out.”
Once the corps puts dunes in place, getting the design changed is a much greater challenge.
“It’s not a road that we have gone down,” said Keith Watson, a project manager for the Atlantic City corps project.
Changing the design also would jeopardize federal funding for the project, which was authorized by Congress in 1996.
Corps officials said the agency has a policy of choosing a design that results in the greatest net benefit to the municipality. Economists estimated the value of buildings, roadways, sewage systems, electrical lines and other infrastructure in Atlantic City. Because the value came in high, the corps determined it was worth building taller dunes in the city. By contrast, Ventnor had less property and infrastructure, so the corps chose a lower dune system.
As a result, the dunes in Atlantic City are 14.75 feet high on the North American Vertical Datum scale, while the dunes in Ventnor rise to 12.75 feet.
“A lot of the economic analysis depends on the elevation of what’s at risk,” said Jeff Gebert, chief of the coastal planning section of the corps in the Philadelphia district.
Stewart Farrell, director of the Coastal Research Center at Richard Stockton College, said sand dues are to beachfront property owners what insurance is to a car owner.
“It’s basically, essentially an insurance problem,” he said. “How much shore protection do you want?”
Recently, Stockton staff were asked by the state Department of Environmental Protection to study the dune height along three points of the Atlantic City beach. The researchers looked at how much of the ocean view the dunes were blocking and what type of storm protection they provided.
Farrell said dunes at two of the three spots sampled along the Boardwalk — near Park Place and Bellevue Avenue — would help protect the shore from a deadly 100-year coastal storm.
Typically, storms of that magnitude occur once every 100 years and would be characterized by wave heights of 18 to 20 feet, a duration of 12 hours and storm surge of 12 feet, Farrell said.
The third spot, near North Carolina Avenue, could withstand a 50-year storm.
Storms of that magnitude are unusual, Farrell said. The March storm of 1962, considered a bellwether of destruction along the coast in New Jersey, registered as a 50-year storm.
Using their measurements as a starting point, researchers detailed how much storm protection would remain if the heights were incrementally lowered, Farrell said. Policymakers could use the information to determine how much shore protection they would be comfortable with if the dunes were lowered.
The DEP said Farrell’s report remains a draft and will not be publicly released until it is finalized under the state’s Open Public Records Act.
The Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, which oversees the Atlantic City Tourism District, including the beaches and Boardwalk, issued a statement saying it would not challenge the agreement authorizing the dune project.
“If we could control the forces of nature, this would be a much easier issue to resolve,” Executive Director John Palmieri said in the statement. “The city is bound by their agreement with DEP and the Army Corps of Engineers, and CRDA would not endeavor to challenge that. Looking at the project in totality, there are several areas of the Boardwalk that offer direct, unobstructed ocean views.”
He said there may be other solutions available.
“The maintenance of the dunes in line with standards set forth may help in some instances,” he said. “The design of the new Boardwalk Pavilions can potentially create other access points to ocean views from the Boardwalk.”
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