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

May 07, 1998|By Robert Hanley | Robert Hanley,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

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.

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