Taxpayers foot bill for hotel's groomed beach

Sand-pumping engineers face an indomitable enemy -- the Atlantic

April 17, 2000|By Gilbert M. Gaul and Anthony R. Wood | Gilbert M. Gaul and Anthony R. Wood,Knight Ridder/Tribune

LONG BRANCH, N.J. -- In its campaign for a piece of the nation's $40 billion business-conference market, the renovated Ocean Place Conference Resort has added an impressive arsenal of amenities.

The hotel has 254 guest rooms, all with water-view balconies. It boasts a million-dollar office center, heated pools and a spa featuring full-body seaweed and mud masks.

And it offers something that was not part of the hotel's recent $10 million renovation plan -- a brand-new, manicured beach to defend its investment from coastal storms and hurricanes.

That came courtesy of taxpayers.

It was the product of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the same corps that built Fort McHenry on Baltimore Harbor and swept the minefields of Normandy Beach on D-Day.

Over the last 220 years, the corps has helped defend America's shores from foreign invaders. Today, it is pumping sand to defend hotels, vacation homes, amusement piers and fudge shops from the surging ocean.

In that role it finds itself in the heat of another battle.

Taxpayer-funded beachfill has become a symbol in the debate over coastal development, even though it is only one in a matrix of federal subsidies that benefit beach towns and property owners.

Most beachfills are "pork barrel" projects, says Lim Vallianos, a 30-year veteran of the corps who is now an engineering consultant. Politicians -- not engineers or geologists -- decide which beaches to fill, and for the most part the projects protect investment properties.

"John Q. Public pays for the protection of commercial enterprises," Vallianos said.

Where beachfill is available, states and towns have less incentive to force builders to keep away from the fragile shoreline. And with so much investment at stake, coastal experts agree that beach towns will have to keep replenishing their beaches.

More and more sand

But with sea levels rising, it will take more and more sand -- and billions more dollars -- to hold the line in front of the developed shoreline for decades to come. And costs will increase as offshore sand supplies dwindle.

The debate centers on who should pay and, more fundamentally, whether it is worth the expense.

At its core is the tension between engineers, who view nature as a problem to be solved, and geologists, who hold that engineers cannot see beyond the life span of a mortgage.

The engineers, with the support of developers and local officials, hold that with so much valuable property on the coasts, the nation has no choice but to save the beaches.

"Retreat from the Shore is the most nonsensical discussion I ever heard," asserts James Mancini, longtime mayor of Long Beach Township. "Let's say the Shore is the boundary of the United States of America, the greatest country in the world. We have to protect it, and anybody with any brains agrees with that."

"Are you just going to walk away from the Eastern Seaboard of the United States and say it doesn't exist?" asks Hank Glazier, the head of the Ocean City Boardwalk Merchants Association.

The geologists, backed by environmentalists, counter that beaches are never endangered -- only beachfront properties. Erosion is erratic and unpredictable, and they say it is only a matter of time before rising tides turn today's beaches into tomorrow's sea bottoms. Thus, beachfill is a permanent and costly commitment.

"Engineering just never stops," said Orrin H. Pilkey, a Duke University geologist who is viewed as the antichrist by the engineering community.

The initial pumping operation is only the beginning. The offshore dredge that pumps the sand has to return to refill the beach every three to six years. Projects require a 50-year commitment of sand, and no one knows what will happen at the end of that time.

"Beachfill isn't like building a bridge," said Jeff Gebert of the corps' Philadelphia district. "You don't build it and walk away expecting that there isn't anything you have to do for the next 10 years or 20 years."

Corps records are incomplete, but a review of annual reports and other documents dating to 1956 shows that the agency has spent at least $1.4 billion on shore-protection projects, in today's dollars. Adding state and local shares, the figure grows to more than $2.2 billion.

The ongoing fill project in North Jersey represents an escalation in the corps' battle with nature. At 21 miles, from Sea Bright to Manasquan, it is the largest beachfill project in the nation's history.

If fully funded over 50 years, the $1 billion federal share of the costs would rival the total spent in the history of the program to date. About $5 billion would be required to defend the entire developed Jersey shoreline in the next 50 years; and tens of billions more to hold sandy beaches in front of developed areas nationwide.

Who foots the bill?

The Clinton administration has stated that it wants the federal government to get out of the beachfill business.

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