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Ocean City’s beach replenishment now a quarter-century old

(May 10, 2013) Getting someone to hand something over to you they don’t want to give up can be difficult, even more so when the benefit you have to offer in return isn’t immediate. It’s even more difficult still when this long-term benefit involves environmental decay or natural disasters that may or may not happen.

Frankly, in 1986, giving up one’s property rights to the government in order to save the sand on the beach was likely about as reasonable a prospect as the plot from Star Trek IV – the one where they go back in time and rescue the whales. The movie, incidentally, was released that year.

Yet, after only a year and a half of coaxing and pleading, public easements had been acquired across all nine miles of Ocean City’s beach. And on May 10, 1988 – exactly 25 years ago today – the city’s beach replenishment program began. It is a program that will continue this fall with a full 900,000 cubic yards of sand being dredged back onto the resort’s main attraction.

“We were in the middle of a nor’easter,” Nancy Howard recalled about the fateful day. Howard was a project manager for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, tasked with coordinating a project that reached across state, federal, and local lines. A resort resident, she would later go on to a long career on City Council.

“We had this lovely ceremony all set up with the dredge – it was out at sea, ready to pump the sand,” Howard said. “But the seas were so bad from the storm that they couldn’t hook the line up to the beach. So, at the last minute, I run across the street to Rose’s and buy a bunch of cheap plastic buckets. We had all these dignitaries just grab up a bucket of sand and that was the start of beach replenishment.”

The concept of beach replenishment was, and is, simple. In order to protect itself from violent weather, the resort needs a broad beach that can absorb water impact and stand up to a considerable amount of erosion. To make the beach wider, one simply pumps sand from the bottom of the ocean floor up onto the shoreline.

When it washes back out to sea, you pump it back again. To make the beach even tougher, you add dunes at the rear of the high water mark to break the waves.

By the mid-1980s, however, few places in the United States had embarked on such a project on a large scale. One exception was Miami, which would serve as a model for Ocean City and other beaches in the years after it was begun.

What triggered Ocean City’s project was Hurricane Gloria, which caused considerable damage to the resort in 1985. After the hit, the state decided to start looking at doing its own beach expansion in Ocean City.

The hardest part of doing such a project in the resort was not – contrary to what one would expect – actually moving the sand. From the beginning of the endeavor, it was assumed that the federal government would provide support via the Army Corps of Engineers, one of the few organizations in the world with the equipment and manpower to actually make oceans into land.

“It had been talked about for a while. A previous city council had gone to Florida to see the project down there first hand. But what we really needed was the feds to pay for it,” Howard said.

What was more difficult, however, was securing the rights to do a public capital project on private property. In the mid-1970s, the Town of Ocean City had begun to enforce a building limit line, banning structures from begin too close to the ocean. Up through that time, a person or company could build a house right up to, and even over, the ocean itself.

Even though the city had forced the line of construction back, and managed to secure public use rights to the beach in front of a number of properties, the majority of the resort’s oceanfront structures still owned varying lengths of beach in front of them.

Thus, public easements would need to be garnered – voluntarily – from each of these landowners, in the same fashion as a city would claim when it was building a road. Except the city wasn’t building a road – it was building a beach.

“We were going out and asking them to do something without paying them,” said Charlotte Cathell, who has been serving as the Register of Wills for Worcester County since 1998, but who before that worked for the DNR.

“Whether they owned the dune or the whole beach, it was a big easement over their property,” Cathell said. ”But they wouldn’t have the piece of property anyway without beach replenishment, at least not for very long.”

Beside the logic of nature, Cathell and Howard had something else on their side – they were locals.

“The Department of General Services had sent three men down from Baltimore, and they were the first ones in the office the state set up on 81st Street to go get the easements,” Cathell recalled. “I don’t believe they got one easement. So, finally, the DNR said, ‘This isn’t the way to do it.’”

“They talked to Fish Powell, the mayor at the time, and they agreed that the correct way would be to get a couple of locals. Fish picked Nancy, and Nancy hired me.”

The biggest obstacle was the inherent paranoia of property owners who were reluctant to give their rights to the government for a highly ambitious project of limited precedent.

“There were just some people who were leery of the government doing anything,” Cathell said. “I would say 85 percent were probably fine with the idea, at least.”

“There were a few that we actually threatened to sue or take to court, but they all kind of came around eventually,” Howard said. “A lot of people had it in their minds that we were building wall 18 feet above their units.”

Although the dunes were, by specification, 18 feet high, this was measured from the lowest mean level of the ocean. Since the city’s roads had been built up in previous years to slope the island westward, many oceanfront units were higher than their residents believed.

“I would say, ‘Go out during low tide. Now imagine 18 feet from that point, not from the sand in front of your condo, but from the water,’” Howard recalled.

What helped many owners’ apprehension was the decision to install a 10-foot wide walkway between the dunes and the building line north of the Boardwalk.

“When the project was originally presented, there was no 10-foot walkway,” Howard said. “The front of the dune began at the doorstep of the houses.”

Eventually, easements were gained from all 284 oceanfront parcels, many of which were large condominiums with voting boards and associations that drug the proceedings out until the spring of 1988.

The initial phase of the project widened the beach and was done without federal funding. Two years later, the dunes and the seawall, which that protects the Boardwalk, were built, with the bulk of the money coming from Washington.

Re-dredging is scheduled every four years, but has occasionally been moved up if the beach needs it, according to City Engineer Terry McGean. A replenishment was scheduled for 2014, but was moved up to this fall because of additional wear from Hurricane Sandy.

“This one will be a little different, because the material lost due to the storm will, I believe, be paid for under a different funding mechanism and will be paid for 100 percent by the federal government,” McGean said.

The federal government typically foots half the bill, with the state taking another quarter and the final quarter being split by the county and city, out of a trust fund that local governments pay into annually.

Despite the considerable expense – roughly $100 million dollars for the initial widening, dune and seawall construction, and the six replenishments since – the project is estimated to have saved $330 million in property damage. That number, McGean’s latest figures show, does not include projected damage from Hurricane Sandy this past October.

Today, the city is fast approaching a demographic “donut hole” of people who remember with fondness the city’s pre-replenishment landscape. On one end, Cathell remarked that those who were around for the 1962 nor’easter that essentially wiped the city out were largely enthusiastic about the change.

“I remember being one of the first people allowed back on the beach in ’62, riding with my father because he owned the local newspaper,” Cathell said. “I still have, embedded in my memory, the vision of riding down the highway and seeing how the ocean and the bay swept right over everything and met.”

“All these buildings were not buildings anymore. I still can see a refrigerator sitting right in the middle of the road. I think the people who lived through that pretty much welcomed the change to their property.”

On the other end, Howard noted, the city is rapidly being occupied by a generation of visitors who, even as children, do not remember the beach before the dunes and the replenishment.

“We knew, even then, that in 20 years there are going to be people coming to Ocean City who don’t know it without the dunes,” Howard said. “We all knew how it was before and didn’t like it because it was different.”

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