N.J. dune kicks sand in eyes of some

Corps of Engineers plans 5-mile, $52 million barrier near Atlantic City

March 13, 2000|By Amy S. Rosenberg | Amy S. Rosenberg,Knight Ridder/Tribune

OCEAN CITY, N.J. -- Louis Spadaccino used to have an ocean view from the back of his first-floor condo, which sits right on the beach.

Now his view ends at a bulky sand dune filled with beach grass -- a beach view just the same but not the glistening water to which he had grown accustomed.

So, despite the fact that the dune was constructed by the city in part to protect his property, Spadaccino sued -- and won, to the tune of $37,000.

The Cape May Superior Court award was upheld last year by an appeals court that ruled that Spadaccino's property value was negatively affected by the dunes.

Now, as the Army Corps of Engineers prepares to spend $52 million in public money to construct an unbroken sand dune stretching about five miles from Atlantic City to Longport, the Ocean City case has officials in other towns a bit nervous.

The communities and their residents are raising questions about the value of a project that they once coveted as a way of preserving the beach and protecting private property and public infrastructure.

Sentiment divided

Community sentiment is divided.

"Some people think it will ruin the aesthetics of the place," said William Thomas, Ventnor's city administrator. "Some people think it will enhance the beauty of the place.

"Many people feel that beaches have been here for 100 years, why do we need this dune project? This island is working on a million-, if not billion-, year time cycle. The Army Corps and the city and the state have to reconcile the geologic time versus people's lifetime and property values, which is a very short cycle."

In Ocean City, officials are negotiating with the state Department of Environmental Protection to see whether they can lower the dunes by either cutting the grass or spreading the sand out over a wider area. As the dunes grow higher, a group of Spadaccino's neighbors are now making noise about want-ing their views restored.

The natural dunes on Absecon Island, the barrier island that is home to Atlantic City, Ventnor, Margate and Longport, have long been buried beneath the first block of homes. The towns have created dunes intermittently along the beach, using everything from buried Christmas trees to geotubes to the sandbox strategy of making hills with a front-end loader.

The Army Corps project, which is supposed to start its sand dredging from the Absecon inlet by early summer, promises to restore a more natural look to the beaches, a look that would seem unnatural, however, to anyone whose idea of a beach is limited to the well-developed, well-groomed flat beaches of Absecon Island.

That means that if the sand dunes prosper, they could block the view of the ocean for a jogger on the boardwalk or make it difficult to get massive cleaning and grooming equipment onto the beach, community leaders said.

From a customer-service perspective that means little to beach engineers, beachgoers could find themselves dragging beach chairs, toys and tents up and over sand dunes with just a little help from removable wooden walkways yet to be installed.

"This job is to protect the property," said Gus Rambo, chief of the Army Corps' civil project management section. "I don't know if the people will be inconvenienced or not."

To the city of Ventnor -- whose economy depends on the influx of summer residents and vacationers to its boardwalk and beaches -- these are not trivial issues.

"We have millions of dollars tied up in the boardwalk," Thomas said. "We want to get an idea of what the expected rate of loss and growth of the dunes is. We don't want people walking on the boardwalk and looking at a wall of sand."

Giving the beach a more natural dune landscape complicates the unnatural process of grooming, he added.

"The dune guys don't have these problems," Thomas said. "If you had a natural beach, you wouldn't clean it; there would be much more wildlife on the beach. But for many people, they love a manicured beach; they don't want to see a bunch of seaweed."

'Block-the view issue'

The Army Corps is proposing sand dunes that would rise two feet higher than the boardwalk in Atlantic City and a foot higher than the boardwalk in Ventnor. They have calculated the height and depth of the proposed dunes, according to an economic analysis that concluded that every dollar spent on the project would prevent $2 in future storm damage.

"The block-the-view issue is -- I'll be nice -- a nonissue, in our opinion," said Michael Bruno, a professor of ocean engineering at Hoboken's Stevens Institute of Technology, which advises the state in such projects. "It doesn't matter. If the boardwalk is gone, they have nothing to walk on. If the house is gone, they have no place to look out from.

"The first order of business is to protect people's homes, people's lives, and all other infrastructure," he said. "We have found, particularly over the last 15 years or so in New Jersey, that vegetated dunes are a very, very effective protective device."

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