The beaches of barrier islands and to some extent the islands themselves are maintained by replenishing the sand that’s washed away by sea and storm. Usually sand is pumped onto the beach from deposits just offshore or in the nearest inlet.
Beach projects in Stone Harbor and Avalon lost their ordinary source of replenishment sand, Hereford Inlet, in 2016. That year, U.S. Fish and Wildlife ruled such use would encourage development of an ecologically sensitive coastal barrier, violating a 1982 law.
The search to find another source of beach has led to a unique feature among New Jersey oceanfront towns — the high dunes in the center of Seven Mile Beach island between the downtowns of Avalon and Stone Harbor.
The state Department of Environmental Protection and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are considering removing sand from the tops and sides of dunes in that area for use building up the island’s beaches.
From a geo-engineering perspective, the plan looks good. Some of the dunes are 10 feet or more higher than the minimum standards for the protective dunes the state and federal governments have been building the length of New Jersey’s Atlantic coast. Removing sand would leave them meeting the coastwide standard, and the state and even some environmental groups suggested taking sand from oversized dunes would be preferable to taking it from offshore deposits.
But the high dunes of Avalon and Stone Harbor have a value beyond storm protection. They are the last example — along with part of Cape May National Wildlife Refuge’s Two Mile Beach Unit south of the Wildwoods — of the high-dune forest habitat that once lined the New Jersey coast. Everywhere else the high dunes were bulldozed to make way for houses and their ocean views.
Residents and visitors love the high dunes and are protective of them. A couple years ago, Avalon and its residents had a fight over how much tree trimming should be allowed there. Last year when a Pennsylvania man cut down some trees to improve the view from his second home, he was turned in by residents and prosecuted.
According to Stockton University’s Coastal Research Center, the dune area includes several rows of sand bumps and in some places takes up half the beach or more, so it may be possible to harvest sufficient sand for the beach projects without jeopardizing the character and size of the high dunes.
That should be added to the criteria for whether the high dunes can be a beach replenishment source. Taking some of their sand should not only leave them meeting the storm-protection dimensions required by the statewide dune plan. It also must not damage or put at risk their ancient high dune forest character.