Height of New Jersey Beach Dunes Kicks up Political Sandstorm

July 20, 2009

Where’s the beach?

That’s the question some oceanfront homeowners are asking, bothered that the dunes are blocking their ocean views.

A sandstorm is brewing in Atlantic City, where businesses and the City Council support lowering the dunes, although the sand barriers protect billions of dollars worth of casinos and other pricey property.

“You can’t see the beach, you can’t see the ocean, you can’t feel the breeze,” said Pinky Kravitz, an Atlantic City radio talk show host who is spearheading an effort to flatten dunes that are 15-feet tall in some places along the gambling resort’s famous boardwalk.

“It feels like you’re in an alley: the casinos on one side and the dunes on the other. It’s a horror,” he said. “There have been people walking up to the information booth on the boardwalk and asking, ‘Where’s the ocean?”‘

Kravitz’s call has since been embraced by Atlantic City merchants and city and county elected officials, all of whom want the dunes lowered to no more than a foot taller than the boardwalk.

But New Jersey’s dunes aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. The state Department of Environmental Protection has no plans to lower them, spokeswoman Elaine Makatura said. She said the dunes are there as a protective barrier for safety reasons.

Whether naturally occurring or pumped ashore as part of beach replenishment projects, dunes save lives and protect property by blunting the power of waves during severe storms. Instead of slamming into buildings with destructive force, the waves instead crash into the mounds of sand, which absorb their power and fury, and lessen the damage they can cause.

The higher the dunes, the more capacity they have to endure the onslaught as they flatten down with each new assault.

Tim Dillingham, executive director of the American Littoral Society, a New Jersey-based coastal advocacy group, says dunes act as “speed bumps” blunting the force of storm surges.

“It’s like the Three Little Pigs. If you build a dune of straw that’s too small, it will collapse when the hurricane huffs and puffs,” he said.

It’s the height that rankles many homeowners _ East or West.

Rosemary Icardo paid big bucks for an ocean view when she bought her house in the Pierpont Bay section of Ventura, Calif., in 1992. She understands the need to protect homes along the coast, and would be fine with a 6- or even 8-foot dune in front of her house.

“But 28 to 30 feet is getting a bit ridiculous,” she said.

That’s how high the dunes have become since the city stopped clearing sand along a narrow right-of-way, allowing sand to pile up naturally.

“Now I can only see the ocean if I go up to the third floor or if I stand on a chair on the second floor,” she said.

She and other homeowners are in talks with the city about a possible settlement of litigation concerning the dunes.

Further up the coast, an Oregon retiree irked over a sand dune that blocked his view of the Pacific Ocean in the city of Florence simply bulldozed 2,000 yards of it on state-owned land in 2007. After months of legal wrangling, a $3,107 fine and an outcry from neighbors, he hired a contractor to put it back.

In New Jersey, the move to lower dunes comes as Atlantic City is trying to survive cutthroat competition from slots parlors in Pennsylvania and New York.

Atlantic City is in the third year of a revenue slump that began right after the first Pennsylvania slots parlor opened in November 2006. For the first six months of this year, revenues at Atlantic City’s 11 casinos are $1.94 billion, down 15.3 percent from the same period last year.

The man-made dunes were placed on Atlantic City’s shoreline in the 1980s as part of a beach replenishment project, and were most recently topped off in 2004.

Other places in New Jersey have equally dim dune views. In Harvey Cedars, a handful of holdouts anxious about losing ocean views managed to delay a beach replenishment project for four years. In Manasquan, an oceanfront bungalow owner wants the 8-foot dune in front of his home removed, arguing that his house did just fine without it for 30 years.

In Brigantine, a beach town next to Atlantic City, Art Siegfried owns a condo two doors down from the beachfront home his family rented each summer for decades. The surf that once came within 100 yards of the house is now a quarter-mile away, thanks to a dune and beach replenishment project that has since grown due to ocean currents that have carried sand here from other beaches.

He’s torn over the need for such wide dunes.

“You used to be able to see the ocean from the first floor,” he said. “Now you can’t. I know the dunes are important in terms of protecting property. But if a big storm came and washed away most of this (dune), I suspect there’d be quite a few happy people around here.”

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