LAST FALL the Army Corps of Engineers completed a $45 million project to widen Ocean City's beach and build dunes and a sea wall to protect its boardwalk. The goal was to protect the beach against the kind of very severe storm that arrives maybe once every 100 years.
Yet today, less than four months after the engineers finished their tasks -- and despite the fact that no such storm has occurred -- the dunes are flattened and sand flowed across Ocean Highway and the inlet parking lot. The town is virtually without protection against any big northeaster that might blow over during the next few months.
In October, November and January three storms, each of only relatively moderate strength, pretty well destroyed the work of the engineers. The October storm, in particular, did a great deal of damage to the dunes. When waves from these storms hit the beach they washed much of the sand back into the ocean and pushed the dunes in other places against the buildings.
Before these storms hit, the Army Corps of Engineers had estimated that beach replenishment at Ocean City probably would be necessary about every four years, at a cost of some $426 million over the next 50 years. That estimate is now considered unrealistically low.
The $45 million cost of the current project was shared by the federal government, which contributed $20 million, the state, which kicked in $13 million, and Ocean City and Worcester County, which each contributed $6 million.
However, under a 1984 law that, in effect, indemnifies state and local governments against just the kind of natural disaster that befell Ocean City, the federal government now must pick up the entire tab for repairs made necessary by the most recent damage -- estimated at between $10 million and $30 million -- with federal taxpayers footing the bill.
Is that fair?
Ocean City has been struck by at least three catastrophic storms in this century, in 1904, 1933 and 1962. The 1962 storm, for example, was considered a "50-year" storm -- that is, of a severity to be expected only about once every 50 years. The most recent storms, by contrast, were only "10-year" or "20-year" storms. The damage they caused was due not so much to their severity in absolute terms but rather to the cumulative effects of three fairly powerful events occurring over the span of just a few months.
Although the Corps of Engineers rebuilt the dunes after the 1962 storm, most were pushed away by condominium and hotel owners, who complained the dunes obstructed the ocean view. In 1977 and 1978, northeasters inflicted considerable damage on Ocean City. Yet the town continued to allow new construction closer and closer to the tide line on the beach.
At that time, the town manager declared in a statement attempting to justify the policy that, since the beach was eroding some two feet every year, the legal line beyond which construction was prohibited now lay practically at the water's edge -- and therefore it was perfectly legal for homeowners to build close to the water.
In 1981, Dr. Vernon L. Fahle prepared a report for the state that examined Ocean City's ability fund to beach protection programs in light of continual erosion and storm hazards. The report noted that "public taxation theory argues that when the beneficiary of a public expenditure can be identified, the preferred policy is to tax the beneficiary."
The Fahle report also determined that Ocean City could finance the entire cost of beach replenishment through: (1) increasing the local property tax; (2) increasing the room tax rate (which would reach the many people who visit the city but do not own property there); and (3) adding an admissions and amusement tax. Finally, Fahle suggested charging a fee for people using the beach, although he cautioned that this might be counterproductive.
Moreover, a Florida Conservation Foundation study found that "beach restoration is a temporary and very costly expedient at best and a potentially destructive boondoggle at worst," and that "beach front structures probably will collapse into the sea eventually regardless of the measures taken and the amount of money spent to save them."
No action was ever taken on the Fahle report -- perhaps because so many state legislators owned property at Ocean City. Yet clearly lawmakers need a broader vision of what is equitable to all citizens.
For many years Virginia Beach, Va., has had what it calls a "sand tax" on entertainment, food and lodging. The "sand tax" covers the full cost of that city's beach replenishment program. Something similar might work at Ocean City if it becomes clear that taxpayers will no longer support expensive beach replenishment projects.
Since the last Ice Age, the average sea level has been rising. Barrier islands like that on which Ocean City sits recede or move landward during such periods. Developers have made millions at Ocean City by building close to the beach for affluent vacationers who, ignoring the risks, have used tax exempt second mortgages to buy homes from which they earn additional income by renting part of the year.
Resort areas are important, and they should be protected for as long as reasonably possible. Yet federal flood insurance is in desperate need of reform. Ocean City may be Maryland's biggest tourist attraction, but taxpayers across the state and nation can no longer be expected to bear the cost of storm and beach protection that benefits the reckless few at the expense of the many.
Judith C. Johnson is founder and president of the Committee to Preserve Assateague Island.