As beaches erode, debate rages over who will pay Clinton administration balks at big outlays for beach restoration


NEW YORK - From the East End of Long Island to the southern tip of New Jersey, these are jittery times for the owners of billions of dollars of shorefront homes and businesses.

Two howling northeasters in midwinter destroyed a $750,000 beachfront home in Southampton and damaged a half-dozen others, flooded and tore up a major highway leading north from Sea Isle City, N.J., to the mainland and devoured old dunes shielding homes on the barrier islands of both states.

Already feeling vulnerable to an angry sea, coastal residents this year face a battle on another front. The federal government, which shorefront residents have always considered their savior, is balking at continuing to play a major financial role in the restoration of beaches.

With more people building closer than ever to the water's edge, the problem of erosion has become a serious one. And with more property in danger, a debate is growing over who should pay for rebuilding eroded beaches, or whether they should be rebuilt at all.

$50.6 million sought

For the federal fiscal year starting Oct. 1, the Office of Management and Budget has earmarked $3.7 million for the Army Corps of Engineers to rebuild beaches in New Jersey and on Long Island. Coastal business owners and local officials and their allies on Capitol Hill want $50.6 million to continue existing beach projects and to study the need for new ones.

President Clinton has tried since 1995 to cut federal spending on such projects, but each time Congress has restored the money and the White House has acquiesced.

This year, White House officials have suggested that they may not be as accommodating. A senior White House official, who spoke only on condition of anonymity, said Clinton may use line-item vetoes on some projects if Congress again restores full financing. The line-item veto was recently struck down by a federal court, but the administration has appealed that ruling to the Supreme Court.

But the debate is over more than money. The issue is how much of an obligation the nation has to protect homes and businesses on coastlines. Critics ask whether the federal government should be rebuilding storm-damaged beaches, and if so, how much it should spend on the task.

Many environmentalists have long denounced beach rebuilding as a boondoggle for the beachfront elite, saying it is simply throwing taxpayers' dollars into the ocean. Coastal interests and their allies on Capitol Hill chafe at that contention, insisting that rebuilt beaches are crucial to the safety of beachfront homes and highways, and are necessary for the tourist industry.

Last month, White House budget officials, environmental experts and representatives of coastal states met to look for common ground in their dispute, but participants said the meeting failed to produce any.

The Army Corps of Engineers has been rebuilding beaches since the 1950s. Through 1995, the bulk of those projects were in North and South Carolina, Georgia, Florida and California. The corps had been planning to continue work on one of its most ambitious projects - spending $15 million next year to pump sand from the ocean bottom onto about 10 of the 21 miles of beach from Sandy Hook to Manasquan, N.J.

It also had been planning to spend an additional $5 million on smaller projects or on planning for the other 100 miles of the state's coastline. The Clinton administration wants to spend just $3.5 million in the state next year.

Long Island faces cuts

Long Island, too, faces the prospect of major federal cuts - to $200,000 proposed by the administration, from the $30.5 million coastal officials had sought for two projects affecting about 10 miles of beaches.

Advocates of beach replenishment see it as critical for the region's future.

"People's lives and property are at stake," said Sen. Frank Lautenberg, a New Jersey Democrat. "Jersey's beaches bring crucial tourist dollars to the state."

But James Tripp, the general counsel for the Environmental Defense Fund, said rebuilt beaches would not protect all coastal buildings in major storms. "Pumping all the sand in the world is not going to save the day," he said. He wants to make it more difficult to rebuild storm-damaged buildings, saying such structures are vulnerable to future damage.

"If property owners want the federal government to moderate erosion, there has to be a contractual understanding that property is going to be lost and not rebuilt," he said. "We'll have to retreat."

Currently, the federal government pays 65 percent of the cost of beach rebuilding projects, covering both the initial sand pumping and, after storms erode rebuilt beaches, new rounds of pumping every five or six years over 50 years. State and local governments usually split the other 35 percent.

The White House does not object to continuing to pay two-thirds two-thirds of the cost of the initial pumping. But the senior White House official said the administration would like to see the states pay 65 percent of the cost of the later pumping, with the federal government picking up the other 35 percent. If beachfront economic benefits are so important locally, the official said, then coastal states should pay a greater share to protect them.

Until relatively recently, erosion was not as significant a problem as it is now because fewer people were building on the coast. But in the last few decades, development has edged closer to the ocean, and doing nothing to stem erosion is no longer a viable option in most places, shorefront property owners and their legislators contend.

That is why Stone Harbor, N.J., which lost a dune in front of five blocks of homes this winter, plans to spend $2 million of its own money to rebuild the dune and the beach in front of it, rather than wait for a now uncertain beach project by the Corps of Engineers.

That is also why some shorefront residents of Southampton, where damage to housing was the region's worst this winter, want the freedom to erect bulkheads or rocky walls, called revetments, in front of their homes. Town officials have proposed a six-month moratorium on granting permits for construction while they draft a long-range beach protection plan.

The Corps of Engineers, meanwhile, is studying how to protect the biggest single stretch of Long Island's barrier islands - the 83 miles from Fire Island east to Montauk Point.

The corps' studies for this region date to the early 1960s, but final plans will not be ready until at least 2002 because the federal Council on Environmental Quality has asked for reviews of the impact of sand pumping on wildlife and on water quality in the bays north of the barrier islands, officials say. Disputes have impeded planning, which was suspended from 1983 to 1993 because New York state balked at helping to finance it.

Fire Islanders' view

Many Fire Islanders say they need their beaches rebuilt sooner ++ than early in the next century. The Corps of Engineers has drafted a $60 million sand-pumping project for a 12-mile stretch of the island. But the Interior Department objected to the project, complaining that it would start before completion of the intensive 83-mile coastal study and could have a negative impact on the nearby Fire Island National Seashore.

Gerard Stoddard, president of the Fire Island Association, says a majority of island residents are willing to tax themselves up to $4 million to pay half of Suffolk County's $8 million share of the proposed project. But, state officials say, Suffolk officials are looking askance at the idea because of county concerns that it would be unable to collect Fire Island's $4 million if, by chance, a major storm were to destroy Fire Island homes.

Suffolk, officials said, wants Albany to create an erosion-control authority to collect Fire Island's taxes and absorb the financial liability if its residents fail to pay.

Some coastal legislators in Trenton, N.J., see a need for the state to provide more money for beach rebuilding. These state legislators want to add $10 million to the annual $15 million fund created in 1992 to help pay New Jersey's share of the Army Corps's beach rebuilding projects. But passage of the increase hinges on the ability of coastal lawmakers to overcome the traditional reluctance of non-shore legislators to commit state tax dollars to beach rebuilding.

Officials in Avalon, N.J., a wealthy coastal community south of Atlantic City, agree that it is time for shore towns to spend more on erosion control. Since 1987, Avalon has spent about $8.6 million in local tax dollars to replenish its five-mile beach after storms, Harry DeButts, Avalon's public works director, said. "It's hard for me to listen to other people cry wolf and stand idly by waiting for someone else to save them," he said.

Besides paying for its own beaches, Avalon is one of the few New Jersey coastal towns that has not squeezed housing into just about every square foot of beach property. In 1968, Avalon bought hundreds of acres of beachfront to create a buffer up to 500 feet wide between its dunes and its first row of homes, DeButts said.

In recent beach projects in the region, the Corps of Engineers has forsaken broad use of the rocky groins commonplace for decades on the New Jersey Shore and Long Island.

Critics say the groins and their longer sister structures, jetties, tend to trap sand moving in currents running parallel to the shore and dam it on one side of the structure, creating a fat beach there and a skinny, sand-starved beach on the other side. To eliminate that, the corps has started removing sections of rock from some groins on New Jersey's shore so sand can flow more freely.

'Good, old-fashioned sand'

Joseph Vietri, deputy chief of planning in the corps' Manhattan office, said groins are no longer considered environmentally sound. "I like the idea of softer solutions," he said. "That's definitely the way we're going. Structures are a choice of last resort. The first thing we look at is good, old-fashioned sand."

New Jersey's chief coastal engineer, Bernard Moore, agreed that broad beaches are a coastal town's best line of defense against storms, now that the technology exists to pump sand to the shore. "Seawalls and bulkheads just don't cut the mustard," Moore said. "They're the last line of defense."

While last winter's storms eroded many New Jersey beaches, including those built up by the Corps of Engineers near Sandy Hook and Ocean City, the beach at Barnegat Light at the north end of Long Beach Island gained sand. It is on the southern side of a jetty at Barnegat Inlet. The jetty has trapped so much sand drifting north in the currents running parallel to the coastline that Barnegat Light homes, once at ocean's edge, are now nearly a mile from the water. Some residents now call the beach the Sahara, and the mayor, Kirk Larson, plans to provide a tractor-pulled flatbed to haul people from their former seaside homes and save them a long walk over hot sand.

The region's biggest debacle involving man-made structures began near Westhampton in the 1960s, when the corps began a major groin-building project. Currents in the area generally carry sand from east to west, and the idea was to start building the groins from west to east, thereby distributing sand more evenly among the various beaches.

Instead, bowing to pressure from property owners on the east end of the project, the Corps started building the groins in the east. That cut off sand that otherwise would have moved along the stretch of beach to the west. The beaches on the western end became starved for sand, and when a major storm hit in December 1992, Atlantic Ocean waters sliced through the narrow barrier island at Westhampton. About 190 of the 246 homes on the island were destroyed before the Corps of Engineers, in an emergency $32 million project, filled the breach, and later widened the beach.

Protecting the plover

In an out-of-court settlement of a federal lawsuit, residents of the community, now called West Hampton Dunes, were promised by the state an unconditional permit to rebuild the lost homes. But the piping plover, an endangered shore bird, is threatening a delay. The federal Fish and Wildlife Service has told Albany that it risks violating the federal Endangered Species Act if it allows construction in a known plover habitat during the bird's nesting season, from April 1 to June 30.

The mayor of the town, Gary Vegliante, is angry. "They're trying to devalue the entire property," he said of the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Sherry Morgan, field supervisor of the Fish and Wildlife Service's regional office in Cortland, N.Y., replied, "We're not out there saying there should be no people on any of these beaches." The service's only goal, she said, was to protect the endangered plover by delaying construction until after its nesting period ends.

Steve Jones, director of Suffolk County's Planning Commission, xTC condemned the whole notion of spending millions in taxpayers' dollars in West Hampton Dunes to rebuild the beach and the dunes, allowing people to rebuild their homes. Jones said it was folly to subsidize rebuilding in a place so vulnerable to destruction. "The federal government allowed people to be foolish," he said.

Pub Date: 5/07/98

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