Local beaches much changed in five years--5 year anniversary section

There is no question that one of the biggest changes to the Delaware shore in the last five years is the completion of major reconstruction projects for area beaches. After years of suffering from beach erosion and risk to homes near the shoreline, all of the areas municipalities received new dunes and expanded beaches, thanks to the projects sought for years by local town councils and citizens.

Coastal Point • File Photo: The dune grass planted in Bethany Beach created its own little firestorm of controversy.Coastal Point • File Photo
The dune grass planted in Bethany Beach created its own little firestorm of controversy.

Local and state officials had lobbied the federal government for 17 years for such major shoreline projects, most recently battling both the George W. Bush and Bill Clinton administrations, which were hostile to federal funding for this kind of project, and a U.S. House of Representatives increasingly concerned about earmarking funds for local projects.

Meanwhile, local shorelines shrank, the possibility of losing homes to the encroachment of the Atlantic Ocean became a real threat and beachgoers using the narrowed beaches rumbled about overcrowding.

But modest amounts of funding through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers slowly trickled through, offering first funding for engineering the shoreline protection projects and then, finally, for construction, all on a 65/35 split between federal and state dollars.

First to begin, in 2003, and to be officially completed, in 2004, was the reconstruction of beaches in Lewes. And, in 2004, Rehoboth Beach and Dewey Beach had their reconstruction projects started, with completion official in early 2005. In Lewes and Dewey, the mostly open beaches were widened and new dunes created. In Rehoboth, the town’s landmark boardwalk butted up against their new dunes, with soft, sloping rise of walkways over the dunes to the widened beach.

Fenwick Island’s major beach reconstruction was lined up to start in August of 2005, with monies from the 2005 fiscal year – getting in just under the wire of changes that would shake up how such projects are funded.

In the summer of 2005, new controls instituted over the Army Corps of Engineers made major impacts on federal funding and how it is used for such projects. Fenwick Island’s project was begun in August, under funding from the 2005 fiscal year, and targeted for its final stages that winter, with funds from the 2006 fiscal year — all at the standard 65/35 federal/state cost sharing.

Though a late start on the Fenwick project actually averted potential disaster of losing tons of freshly pumped sand to a heavy-hitting nor’easter, by the time Jan. 1 arrived, Fenwick Islanders were turning out for their new New Year’s Day tradition – the Fenwick Island Freeze – on a beach much widened from sand dredged from off South Bethany and capped off by a tall dune that is hoped to help protect the town’s homes and businesses for decades to come.

As the project was completed in the spring, a winding ramp supplied access for those with handicaps, while the town managed to get permission to add a more direct route at the same location, to provide more direct access to those who could handle a trek nearly straight over the dune.

They even got permission to place benches atop the dune crest at the access areas, giving those who just wanted to look over the ocean a cozy spot from which to do so without having to trek down the front face of the dune and across the widened beach.

Bethany, South Bethany caught on the bubble

Meanwhile, officials in Bethany Beach and South Bethany found themselves on the wrong side of the changes to the Corps’ funding regulations.

No longer were Corps projects permitted to be started with only partial funding already in the bank for them, in anticipation of future years’ funding – a process called “continuing contracts.” Instead, the two towns had to wait until the small annual allotment of federal funds the Bethany-South Bethany project managed to receive had reached the level needed to complete basically all of the engineering and construction.

“You’re right on the doorstep of going into that federal room we all want to be in,” DNREC’s Tony Pratt warned local Chamber of Commerce members in March 2005.

Hopes, though, were that the project would get enough funding in the 2006-fiscal-year federal budget to get under way in September of 2006, just about a year later than construction had begun in Fenwick Island. Bethany and South Bethany officials put their muscle – and their money – behind consultants Marlow & Co., who would lobby Congress on the project’s behalf.

Bethany Beach Vice-Mayor Carol Olmstead noted at the time that the towns were working hard to restore federal funding for the project. “We’re doing all we can. We’re keeping their feet to the fire,” she said.

President George W. Bush’s budget for that year didn’t offer much hope, offering no funding for the project and emphasizing that it was one of many that was under consideration for “suspension of construction.” Essentially, since construction hadn’t really gotten under way, it was recommended it never begin.

The contrast between the situation for these final two Delaware beach towns slated to receive reconstruction projects and its neighbors was stark.

Lewes, Dewey, Rehoboth and Fenwick all had new beaches and dunes with a de-facto 50-year guarantee from the Corps to maintain them as they had been built. Bethany and South Bethany were at risk of losing their projects entirely.

The towns emphasized the return rate of such projects, offering many dollars of financial return through enhanced property protection and improved recreational and tourism economies once they were completed. Using e-mail, postal mail and boardwalk handouts, they asked residents, property owners, visitors and anyone willing to lobby on their behalf to contact their legislators in Washington, D.C., to encourage funding of the project.

But with the purse strings tightening even further in D.C., the news from the 2007 federal budget wasn’t much better.

An estimated $14.4 million in federal funds was needed to get the dwindling beaches reconstructed. But just $3.3 million in federal funding was in the bank for the construction phase of the project at the end of 2006, and federal appropriations were delayed past the start of the 2007 fiscal year — which began in October — and possibly into February or even October of 2007. Bethany and South Bethany renewed their contract with Marlowe & Co. through the end of 2007.

Funding coup causes celebration

Then, late on Monday, March 16, 2007, came word of the full funding of the project.

“It’s amazing!” a beaming Olmstead – then Bethany Beach’s mayor – said of the news of the funding. “This is the replenishment scenario that will give our town the maximum beach and storm protection, and best possible outcome for our community.”

Olmstead thanked the state’s Congressional delegation, as well as DNREC Secretary John Hughes and Pratt for their work on the project’s behalf. “Last but not least, our supporters in Bethany Beach, who allowed us to stay the course and believed in our efforts,” she noted.

“It just goes to show that when you work long and hard as a team and don’t lose hope, things can happen,” Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) told the Coastal Point that Tuesday. “There was just one beach replenishment project in the country that has been approved, and this is it,” he emphasized, again pointing to a team effort as key to their success.

The success came none too soon for most in the towns and others pulling for the project.

“With the beach conditions as they are, I felt very strongly that we needed to do something sooner rather than later,” said U.S. Rep. Michael Castle (R-Del.). “I had even talked to the state about doing something on an emergency basis.”

The Congressman noted that the project had been funded on the federal level in drips and drabs, providing only $3.3 million in the 2006 fiscal year and perhaps less than that for the 2007 fiscal year, as had been proposed in budget bills that were never passed. At that rate, several more years might have passed before the reconstruction project actually got under way.

“I’m extremely pleased that, instead of having to wait for period of three or four years, we got the full funding all at once,” Castle said. “This will happen this fall, and that’s extremely good. I’m not sure could withstand another major storm. It certainly has been affecting tourism and the beaches.”

Celebration was still in the air on Aug. 31, 2007, when many of those involved came together for a ceremony on the Bethany boardwalk to mark the official go-ahead for the construction. At the event, Hughes recalled the passion of former South Bethany Mayor Sal Aiello for the beach reconstruction project.

“He never stopped goosing me to get this project going,” Hughes recalled with a chuckle of the man he called “a great friend.” Aiello died in 2003, never having seen the project he had championed for South Bethany, with its lack of protective dune structure, come to fruition.

“Change is coming,” Hughes promised, while noting, as did other officials present at the ceremony, that most had watched the high tide just 20 minutes prior overwash the peak of the beach in front of the Bethany Beach boardwalk and send beachgoers scurrying for the dry sand that has come to be in such short supply. “There will be no more towels getting washed off.”

“Life will change,” Hughes said of the $19.8 million project.

As often noted during the pursuit of federal funding for the beach reconstruction project, Hughes said, “Tourism is the engine that drives this economy. Our benefit-cost analysis proves that it is worth the money. I know it will be well worth it.”

Contractors Weeks Marine began the construction project in Bethany Beach in mid-September of 2007, completing most of the major construction before the end of the year, with the construction of walkways and planting of the dunes slated for the spring of 2008.

Dune height, storms raise issues

As the 16-foot-tall dune rose in front of Bethany’s boardwalk, though, discontent rose with it.

“When you consider that on the top of the dune there will hopefully be a healthy stand of protective dune grass, possibly a foot tall, it will be difficult for the average-height person to see over the 4-foot differential between the boardwalk and the vegetated dune,” wrote Bethany’s John J. Stamm in a letter to the Coastal Point in October 2007. “And those of us that enjoy sitting on the benches watching the ocean, the bathers, surfers, sun worshippers and fishermen will be completely shut off. You won’t even be able to see the ocean when sitting on the benches, only the side of a grassy sand dune.”

Stamm was one of many who complained that the new dune in front of the boardwalk made it nearly impossible for one to stroll the boardwalk and also take in the wide watery vista they were so used to seeing, contrasting it with the result of reconstruction in Rehoboth Beach.

“I have the same concern myself,” DNREC Shoreline and Waterway Management Program Administrator Tony Pratt admitted that week. “I’ve been talking to the (U.S. Army) Corps (of Engineers), and right now I’m waiting for a response from the guy who has the answer, to see whether the dune can be altered at all.”

While the Corps put off any official word on altering the dune until after storm-protection studies were completed, and then until the town’s beach is due for a periodic replenishment in three or four years, Mother Nature had some other ideas.

In May 2008, just as the town was ready to open its first summer season with the widened beach, a late-season nor’easter decimated the beach and dune. It eliminated beach access with a sharp drop-off from the new dune, as well as narrowing the beach and creating deep tide pools that beachgoers had to traverse to get to the shore.

As summer progressed, town officials were given permission to fill in the tide pools, and contractors began rebuilding the dune face under the aegis of the contract that had been due to be officially concluded with an inspection tour on the very day the nor’easter struck. The town added dune-top benches, too. Then, in October 2008, another storm repeated much of the damage done that May.

Acknowledging that the Bethany Beach portion of the project had not fared as well as it had been designed to do, Corps officials in the fall of 2008 announced that they would be adding Bethany Beach to a planned periodic replenishment of Dewey Beach that was slated to take place over the winter, repairing the storm-damaged dune face and beach access and once again widening the beach to the state it was designed to be.

People in both of those towns are now awaiting the start of that project, which is hoped to be completed in time for the 2009 summer season.

Meanwhile, beachgoers in Fenwick Island will be enjoying their third summer with a wider beach and the protection of a new dune, and South Bethany beachgoers will be enjoying not only their second season with a reconstructed beach but the additional accumulation of sand that deserted Bethany during those storms.

There will be no question in any of their minds but that the face of their beach has changed tremendously in the last five years.