Keep Out the Dunes, Margate

Before voting on an expensive replenishment project, residents should realize how little the dunes helped Ventnor and A.C. during Sandy.

Thereʼs a storm a-brewinʼ in Margate , and itʼs all about, well, storms. More specifically, itʼs about the construction of sand dunes — a project rejected by the communities of Longport and Margate when the Army Corps of Engineers first proposed it in 2003. Dunes were, however, erected in Ventnor and Atlantic City, so, luckily for Margate residents, they can look to the performance of those dunes as they face this latest go-round.

Itʼs no wonder that Hurricane Sandy has brought this project to the fore. Lots of folks suffered damage to their homes, and the municipalities of Absecon Island also incurred great expense to rebuild and repair — all in time for the summer season. So itʼs only natural, I suppose, to think that the dunes may have mitigated that damage and that maybe theyʼre a good idea after all. Margate has decided to include a nonbinding referendum on its ballot in November asking residents if they want the dunes now after all. Because of the serious tax implications, however, before Margatians pull the lever, it behooves them to be educated on the subject.

The Absecon Island Coastal Storm Risk Management project was initially conceived, researched, and constructed as a mechanism to “reduce storm damage due to flooding and wave attack and minimize shoreline erosion.” It is a project designed to maximize beach replenishment. The construction of a berm and large dunes should, in theory, contain coastal high tides and waves lower than dune height and keep the sand on the beach. Ventnor residents would argue that they donʼt do that and that, in fact, the sand washes out to sea and the city is left with the expense of creating new beaches after a decent storm. But Sandy wasnʼt a decent storm, it was a whopper. How would the dunes, as planned, have fared in a storm that size? I asked a Margate official familiar with the project from its inception, and this is what I learned.

The perfect storm last October caused damage due to high winds, flooding and sand deposited inland. There were 65 homes in Margate that sustained significant damage, only nine of which were beach-block. The homes most affected were in the 200 and 300 blocks of Margate, not beachfront. The bay rose up and flooded the island. The waves crashed onto the dunes, where they exist, and deposited tons of sand inland. The sand crashed onto the communities of Ventnor and Atlantic City like liquid cement, carried by waters that receded, leaving sand and debris everywhere. In addition, in Ventnor, after the waters receded, the ponding that occurred between the bulkhead and the dune did not perk, as Army Corp engineers predicted it would, leaving a stagnant pool of algae-covered water as an attraction to insects and adventuresome children.

So while the jury is out on how effective the dunes are at beach retention, itʼs pretty clear that they have no affect on mitigating storm damage from a superstorm and, in fact, add the additional risk of damage caused by the immense amount of sand that moves inland — not to mention the additional cost of removing that sand and replacing it on the beach. And what will it cost Margate to move sand around after a storm? Nine percent of the cost to rebuild the huge dunes when they are washed inland will be borne by Margate residents. That figure is guesstimated by the ACE to be more $418 million over 50 years for all four municipalities. Thatʼs dune maintenance. The cost of shoveling the sand to the beach and the cost of purchasing easements will be completely borne by residents. And beachfront homeowners donʼt sell that million-dollar view for peanuts.

An easement in Harvey Cedars was acquired at a cost of $375,000; Margate will need to procure 10 such easements. If the beach replenishment project moves forward, surely beach-block homeowners will petition reassessment of their homes, and surely those assessments will be reduced, meaning a sizable reduction in tax revenue. So, less money coming in and a contractual obligation to have skin in the game financially. How to fund that shortfall? Taxes will go up for all residents.

The dunes will cost a bundle of money, and they donʼt mitigate flooding or wind damage, the greatest components of damage during Sandy. By some accounts, they cause more damage than protection, and still the feds would like Margate to sign on. I smell something more than salt air.