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Sand overtakes Jersey shore restaurateur


CAPE MAY, N.J. - Well, it's about that time again at the scenic Cove Restaurant, when winter is receding and Ed Johnston begins the process of opening up his little beachfront restaurant for the season at the western tip of this seaside town.

It's time for Ed to start shoveling sand.

Mountains of it have blown onto his property, making his place look like the day after a blizzard. The sand covers his parking lot, drifts up along his boarded-up deck, blows against the door, jams the lock, creeps through the door threshold all the way into the restaurant, where little cone-shaped piles of sand sit on the tables.

It's Ed Johnston's nightmare.

For 30 years, the family-owned restaurant sat precariously on land just behind a jetty, the ocean within spitting distance. Never did Johnston have any trouble with the water that lapped so fetchingly at the front of a view that stretched all the way to the Cape May Point lighthouse.

All that plus a $6.95 crab-cake sandwich, and times were swell at the Cove.

Then came a multimillion-dollar beach-replenishment project, which extended the beaches that sit across the avenue from his property, and for the last several years Johnston has been struggling to get out from under a near-constant accumulation of wind-blown sand.

'Never had a problem'

Never mind that the old jetty, now covered with sand, was built on the site of what was an actual Third Avenue, swallowed up a century ago by the sea.

"I never had a problem with the ocean," Johnston says. "The problem now is the sand. How am I supposed to open up? I'm going to have to run camel rides this summer. It's getting bigger and bigger. It's going to swallow my property."

The replenishment has been a big success for Cape May in terms of adding beaches for summer tourists and for flood protection. One might think Johnston would be happy to have the added protection from the ocean. But no.

For Johnston, the winds and currents and new dune fencing have all combined with the pumped-in sand to create an ongoing pileup that he says threatens to ruin his business and spoil his idyllic location - the last property at the western end of Beach Avenue.

Only now, with all the sand wreaking havoc with drainage from storms, does he have a problem with flooding.

"Bring back the ocean," says Johnston.

For the Army Corps of Engineers and towns up and down the Shore, Johnston is but one more unhappy camper among residents who were expected to welcome the bigger and wider beaches.

In Ocean City, beachfront property owners went to court over the loss of their view from a newly built sand dune, with one owner winning $37,000 from the city as compensation.

In Ventnor and Margate, beachfront property owners are marshaling resources to fight a proposed new Army Corps of Engineers sand dune that they fear will block their views and create other headaches for them.

In all these cases, including Johnston and his piles of sand, the property owners pooh-pooh the threat of storm damage, a point that bedevils local and Army Corps of Engineers officials, who believe they are preserving the property of the very people who flood their offices with protests, postcards and phone calls.

"I don't think he relates to that at all," says Cape May Mayor William Gaffney, who has found himself discussing Johnston's predicament with officials stretching from the City Council to Congress.

'The last property'

"All the major improvements that we've made with our beaches are to protect property. At one point, the water was right up against his property. Since then, the beaches have built up. He is on ground level with the beach. He's the last property in Cape May on the beach. He's going to get sand. He's going to get wind. That's just the way it is."

The city has erected dune fencing and planted dune grass to try to trap the sand on the beach. But the dunes are now threatening to block the view from Johnston's restaurant, which does not make him any happier.

"This view here is one of the most photographed views," he says.

The city recently installed a new drain in the street in front of Johnston's restaurant, but that is already filled with a foot and a half of sand. The city itself comes along every week or two to clear the street of sand.

Gaffney agrees that Johnston has a big problem, but says it is not his job to remove the sand or to redesign the dune fence, as Johnston has suggested. The state has given Johnston permission to move the sand as long as he deposits it on the beach.

"His property seems to be on an angle that seems to catch a whole lot more sand," Gaffney says. "I would agree he has a major problem. The winds blow everything right toward his building."

As for the Army Corps of Engineers, it says it can't be sure that the replenishment project caused the problem. "If you put dye on the sand on the beach at Cape May City and trace to see where it landed," says Carmen Zappile, corps project manager for Cape May, "I'm not sure it would wind up at Cape May Meadows" - a beach area bordering Johnston's property.

None of this is of any comfort to Johnston, who wants a permanent solution to his sand situation, and does not believe it should be his responsibility to keep digging himself out from his ongoing sandstorm. Sand, he points out, doesn't melt like snow.

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