Future of Assateague Island debated Viewpoints: Seashore manager's goals conflict with those of the area's business community.


CHINCOTEAGUE, Va. -- During this winter's storms, ocean waves peeled the veneer of civilization from Assateague Island. Tides surged against the walls of the visitors center. Man-made dunes were leveled.

When the water retreated, 3 feet of shimmering sand covered the road and asphalt parking lots. The naked island had lost 100 feet of beach on the ocean side, but gained land in what formerly were bayside marshes.

Assateague rolled over in the storms, reclaiming its wildness.

"It's almost like a living animal, the way it changes," said Marc Koenings, superintendent of Assateague National Seashore. ""We talk about erosion, but it's just the island doing its thing."

Koenings thinks it's time to stop fighting nature. He wants to redesign Assateague's facilities to make them more flexible in case of storms. There's been talk of using all-terrain shuttles to bus tourists to a beach that would no longer have roads, lots or permanent structures - an untamed barrier island, left to roll with the waves.

But Koenings' vision - or at least the shuttle bus idea - runs smack up against the economic interests of nearby Chincoteague Island, where 1.3 million visitors to Assateague sleep, eat and shop each year. Townspeople fear that his dream park would flop. And without the tourist trade, Chincoteague would die, taking a huge chunk of Accomack County's tax base with it.

"It would be a ghost town," said Tommy Mason, who owns the Waterside Motor Inn.

Any talk of the shuttle raises hackles in Chincoteague.

"It would be extremely detrimental to the business community," said Wanda Thornton, who sits on the county Board of Supervisors and is a member of Chincoteague's Beach Access and Parking Committee.

Since there's nowhere to buy food, drinks or anything else on Assateague, visitors bring coolers, chairs, baby equipment, sunscreen, clothes, towels, umbrellas, cameras, radios, and whatever else they might need to enjoy the beach.

Forcing tourists to haul all that gear on a shuttle bus would be a good way to ensure that they never come back, Thornton said. The resulting economic hardship, she said, would ripple well beyond the town. "Accomack County depends heavily on what happens on Chincoteague," she said.

Chincoteague pays 28 percent of the county's property taxes because houses on the resort island generally are worth more than those elsewhere in the county, Thornton said. The county and town each reap about $210,000 annually from Chincoteague motel occupancy taxes, plus $300,000 from the island's meal tax.

Then there's the massive logistical problem of moving a million people from one place to another.

"Who is going to bear the cost of this transportation shuttle?" Thornton asked.

Islanders insist that the federal government maintain 961 parking spaces on Assateague as long as the land base is sufficient to hold them. That's what Chincoteague was promised by the park's master plan.

So for now, the shuttle bus idea has been set aside. Recently, the National Park Service reshuffled its budget to fund part of the $1.6 million in repairs needed to keep Assateague usable in Maryland and Virginia.

Workers are rebuilding all the parking spaces destroyed in the storms. Some are located on the sand that this winter's storms dumped on the west side of Assateague. Officials expect that the beach facilities will be open by Memorial Day. Bulldozers have pushed up huge dunes to protect the visitors center and bath houses, leaving very little beach.

But there is some progress in making the park more environmentally sensitive. This time, the lots and road are being made of clay, sand, oyster shells and pine resin.

"We won't build it anymore with asphalt," Koenings said. "Eventually all this stuff is going in the bay."

Five years ago, the agency spent $500,000 replacing the same road and parking lots that were destroyed this winter - and likely will be buried again. So the question lingers: How often should the taxpayers foot the bill for structures that will inevitably wash away?

"As often as it takes and as long as it takes," said Mason's wife, Donna. She and others believe the government should fund beach replenishment in Virginia to match the $16 million sand-pumping project planned for Maryland's portion of Assateague.

Pub Date: 5/03/98

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