For the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, protecting shore towns from storm-whipped ocean waves is simple mathematics: If it costs less to build a protective dune than it does to rebuild the property behind it, then build the dune.
But for shore property owners and visitors, the expansion of sand dune projects in recent years is anything but simple. In a tourist economy that relies on a location where ocean meets land, putting an obstacle between one and the other is sometimes perceived as heresy.
The beachfront property owners who stand to gain the most protection from dune projects are often the most vocal opponents. They don't want to lose their ocean views. Other shore property owners see dune projects as the best way to preserve the shore's most valuable asset: the beaches that draw millions of visitors every year.
With new beach replenishment projects announced each year, the only certainty is that the debate will continue.
Dune-related controversies have popped up in seemingly every southern New Jersey beach town, and none is exactly like the last:
- In Ocean County, Ship Bottom seniors Thaddeus and Dorothy Jedziniak have battled their conviction on charges of dune tampering in 2007, calling it politically motivated because they had opposed a $71 million beach replenishment.
- The state Department of Environmental Protection told Brigantine restaurateur Tony Pullella in October not to remove sand next to the beachfront Laguna Grill. Pullella claimed he was moving sand that increasingly blew into the parking lot, blocking parking spaces.
- The frustrated mayor of Ventnor asked the DEP in 2005 what would happen if he let 50 people start removing the dunes. "The commissioner said, 'I guess I'd have to send a bus down to arrest them all,'" former Mayor Tim Kreischer said.
- Ocean City tried last year to get permission to reduce its dunes, much like Atlantic City did this year, but the DEP declined.
- Crews began building protective dunes in North Wildwood this summer, and not everyone liked it. One resident said sarcastically, "Why the hell would I want to look at that ocean? Who wants a beautiful ocean breeze? Who wants to watch a lousy dolphin?"
- The owners of the restaurant The Cove in Cape May tried for years to get a dune removed to improve customers' views, only to see a storm consume the dune in September anyway.
An uphill battle
The Atlantic City Boardwalk Committee is fighting one of the most prominent recent battles now - to adjust dune heights next to the Boardwalk.
The resort saw 32 million visitors in 2008, according to the South Jersey Transportation Authority, and the committee wants to give them maximum incentive to return.
Historically, owners of beachfront homes and businesses have fought for lower or nonexistent dunes to preserve their ocean views. But even if a better view holds economic interest for someone such as a Boardwalk restaurateur, the Army Corps of Engineers doesn't calculate that into the value of protected property, said Stewart Farrell of the Richard Stockton Coastal Research Center, who is advising the non-governmental Boardwalk Committee.
"That's not part of the equation," Farrell said. "The decision is made on, what are you going to save if this happens? What is the probability of something worse happening?"
Elaine Makatura, spokeswoman for the state DEP, said cities can take initiative to build their own dunes. But if federal or state funding is involved, the Corps will be, too, and "The Corps will not participate in the project if the approved design criteria is lowered," Makatura said.
Moreover, once built, a dune "cannot be mechanically lowered - control of the height is mostly through management of the dune with fencing and plantings."
Compromises do happen, though.
Atlantic City's dune was built at 14 feet, 9 inches, two feet lower than the standard level to resist a 50-year storm, Farrell said.
And the actual height depends on where you stand on Absecon Island. The dunes have swelled in some parts, and others wouldn't repel the splash from a belly-flop.
"It's next to nothing at the north end of town - New Jersey Avenue may have no dune left at all - and 17 feet or so in the south end of town," Farrell said.
The Army Corps surveys its dunes once a year, checking every 200 feet, Farrell said.
Footing the costs
The cost of renewing a dune and the beach in front of it can depend on where the sand comes from, Avalon engineer Tom Thornton said.
The borough trucked in sand from a nearby pit for a project in the spring, Thornton said, and now is working on dredging up sand from offshore.
Beach replenishment includes both dune construction and the infill that covers the rest of the beach. Avalon ordered 120,000 cubic yards of sand in April to bolster the half-mile of beach at the island's north end.
The project cost about $2.3 million and restored a dune that stands as high as 12 feet and had been decimated by a series of northeasters, Thornton said.
Beach nourishment has existed for generations, but not until the mid-1980s did New Jersey begin focusing on building up dunes, said DEP Commissioner Mark Mauriello.
Two-thirds of the funding has always come from the federal government, although plenty of lobbyists have pushed for coastal states to take over the bulk of the funding if they accrue most of the benefit, Mauriello said.
"It's a lively debate, and I'm not sure that debate will ever end," Mauriello said.
Why size matters
Farrell is directing a Dune Vulnerability Assessment, using digital terrain mapping to pinpoint the weaknesses of beaches in southern New Jersey.
"The damage (Oct. 15 through Oct. 18) in Harvey Cedars was absolutely predicted by this model," Farrell said.
The northeaster that weekend bit off 13 vertical feet of the Ocean County borough's dunes, according to the "storm survey" DEP conducts after any strong coastal storm. Long Beach Island's dunes are as high as 22 feet throughout.
The math was more grim in Ocean City. Dunes are supposed to be 13 to 16 feet high there, and the mid-October storm took off up to 14 feet. Giant sand-filled "geotubes" were exposed in the beach, and many dune fences were uprooted.
Fences failed up and down the coast, and dunes in other towns were left with ocean-facing sand walls as high as 10 feet, though some dunes were hardly touched.
Sea walls in Avalon, Cape May County, and Beach Haven, at the end of Long Beach Island, experienced "washovers" too, but the DEP noted no serious property damage in its survey.
Farrell's team started mapping dunes at Long Beach Island and has reached Brigantine.
"The height of the dune is determined by what level of storm you want to withstand," Farrell said, adding that the value of protected property is a factor, too. "The benefits have to exceed the costs by at least 25 percent."
Building the dune itself can be easier than finding the room to build a gentle slope on either side. It's usually five feet of width for every foot of height, Farrell said.
A dune crest should be flat and about 25 feet wide, so the cross-section of an ideal dune would be a trapezoid.
As storms retreat, dunes usually refill themselves to some extent, Farrell said. The stronger storms, though, last long enough to overwhelm the dunes before they can be replenished.
DEP's dune construction is conceived with that possibility in mind, a possibility, as Mauriello told the Boardwalk Committee, that is all too easy for residents to dismiss in fair weather.
Committee member Tom Lamaine, a former television meteorologist, recently invoked the devastating northeaster of 1962: "A storm like that would wipe the whole dune out anyway."
How they stand
Baseline dune heights in southern New Jersey, in feet above sea level:
Long Beach Island: 22
Atlantic City, Ventnor: 14 to 16
Ocean City: 13 to 16
Sea Isle City, Strathmere: 15
Cape May, Lower Township: 12 to 16
Cape May Point: 18
Source: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
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