Losing more than sand

January 08, 1992

"All we've lost is sand," declared Sen. Barbara Mikulski after surveying damage from the fierce storm that battered Ocean City and other coastal areas last weekend. "We have not lost lives, we have not lost property." That's a great deal to be thankful for, but those blessings didn't come without a price. The damage to Ocean City property was far less severe than that suffered by nearby beaches in Delaware -- thanks to a $45 million beach replenishment project carried out by the Army Corps of Engineers. Take into account that generous contribution from taxpayers, and it's simply inaccurate to tally the loss only in sand.

Because of a 1984 law allowing the Corps of Engineers to return such projects to pre-storm condition, it seems likely that Washington will pay for repairing the damaged beach, at an estimated cost of $10 million to $30 million. That's good news for state and local officials -- at least for the short run. But sooner or later, federal patience with a never-ending battle with Mother Nature is sure to run out. Federal dollars are essential to these projects, but why should taxpayers in Nebraska or Oklahoma spend $20 million to protect expensive beach-front property on a fragile barrier island?

Closer to home, $13 million in state funds also went into the project. But why should taxpayers in strapped jurisdictions like Baltimore city subsidize property owners in Ocean City -- especially when Worcester County home owners pay a property tax rate of a mere $1.59 per $100 of assessed value? Granted, BTC there were local contributions, $6 million from Worcester County and $6 million from Ocean City itself. But as budget deficits spiral out of control and anger against tax increases drives the political agenda, it's likely that the ratio of local contributions to state and federal dollars will have to change significantly for future beach replenishment projects.

Budgetary pressures may be a blessing in disguise if they force officials and planners to take a long-range view. Scientists are furiously debating what is causing rising sea levels around the world, but there is no longer any argument that they are indeed rising. Chesapeake Bay experts agree that the minimum rise in the sea level next century will be one meter. Smith Island, to take one example, will no longer exist. If Ocean City intends to protect its current shoreline and waterfront property against that kind of assault, it probably ought to call in the Dutch and learn to build dikes. Despite the fact that O.C. is a treasured part of Maryland, it is unlikely the generosity of state and federal taxpayers will stretch that far. If Worcester County residents want to shore up the beaches, they may well have to pay for their own sand.

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