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In Rebuilding NJ’s Beaches, Debate Brews Over Replacing Sand

Monday, November 26, 2012

Small section of the Atlantic City boardwalk collapsed. (Scott Gurian/WNYC)

Two weeks after Sandy, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie had a clear message: “We’re not closing down the New Jersey shore. We’re just going to make it safer. And the Army Corps has the ability to do that,” he declared.

That means engineering beaches. Lots of beaches.

When planners use the phrase "engineered beaches" they're talking about a process that involved dredging sand from a mile offshore, hauling it to a beach, constructing dunes and planting beach grasses. It's all done in an effort to mimic nature — and to protect property.

The Christie administration last Friday said Sandy caused at least $29.4 billion worth of damage to the state overall. The governor has promised to spare no effort to rebuild the state's tourism industry and infrastructure but hasn't provided a figure for how much would be needed for beach restoration. Christie called for the federal government to help fund a major Army Corps of Engineers program on the coast on November 12. He said, "now we need the president and the congress to step up and make sure that they give them the resources that they need to be able to engineer the beaches from one end of New Jersey to the other — so we don't have this kind of disaster again."

Dr. Stewart Farrell, director and founder of the Coastal Research Center at Richard Stockton College, has been studying sites along the shore since 1986. According to a report by the center, from 1986 to 2011 nearly $700 million was spent placing sand on about 55 percent of the New Jersey coast. Dr. Farrell says it was money well-spent.

“My friends in the tourist business say New Jersey earns $30 to $35 billion a year as its tourist industry revenue,” he said. “That’s actually a fairly small price to pay in terms of maintenance of the industry, I would think.”

But Orrin Pilkey says the approach is not sustainable. He's professor emeritus of Geology at Duke's Nicholas School of the Environment. Replenished beaches, he explains, will need new sand, on average, every 3- to 5-years. He says it's getting harder to find sand on the continental shelf. And, he says, the cost is becoming prohibitive.

He argues that for the 21-mile stretch of beach running south from Sandy Hook it will cost $13 million per mile to replenish the sand. "That's a huge amount of money to protect some houses. And maybe we need to start thinking longer term which means moving some houses or not rebuilding some houses that have been destroyed by the storm," Pilkey argued.

But Tom Johnson, a reporter with NJ Spotlight, says that's not likely to happen.

He points to a post-Sandy decision by the state to allow county and local governments to bypass the Department of Environmental Protection permit process in order to quickly replace public infrastructure, like roads and bridges.

"Many of the people whose homes were destroyed or badly damaged include state legislators, influential people in New Jersey who make critical decisions and people with money,” he said. “So my guess is it's going to be moved forward quickly rather than a lengthy and deliberate process."

Opponents say a deliberate process is exactly what's needed and that sand replenishment alone won’t solve the problem. They argue that eventually, the notion of rebuilding homes exactly where they were, on the water's edge won't fly with inland taxpayers who have to keep footing the ever-increasing bill.

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Comments [4]

Bill Wolfe from Bordentown, NJ

Great reporting.

I'll make just one point:

I find it very curious that you used Tom Johnson, a superb reporter for NJ Spotlight, as the environmental source in this story. Why use a reporter for saying what NJ environmentalists should be saying?

Why aren't NJ environmentalists saying that? Why are they not criticizing Governor Christie, who has ignored climate change, sea level rise and expert recommendations on regional planning and coastal vulnerability and is championing rebuilding in a way that repeats the mistakes of the past? Where are the press releases, news conferences and protests to challenge Gov. Christie's stunningly awful policies on major environmental issues?

Why the silence and lack of criticism, and instead the issuance of a set of lame general "principles" that have no operational application or policy or program demand?

You should report on that.

Feb. 10 2013 09:47 AM
Daniel from NJ

I have ALWAYS been opposed to any Gov't money go to restore sand on NJ's beaches ... it is Tax Money that could be much better used somewhere else, because ANY beach-goer EVERY TIME has to PAY to access on any of the beaches in these sea-level townships - the poor and middle-income cannot afford these same hard-hit beaches; for a family of 5 it could be $80 or more for ONLY ONE DAY. Where did all of those $13,000,000,000 spent on the Jersey Shore go? It is NOT the first time that the sand has been replaced - even a "regular" storm over the last 4 DECADES takes more than 1/2 the sand away. We have been paying too much of our taxes for enjoyment that only the upper middle class can enjoy.

Nov. 26 2012 01:42 PM
NABNYC from SoCal

In California, a state with a very long coastline, most of the beach property has been bought by rich people, who then use all their money and influence to deny beach access to the rest of us. Malibu is a great example. Movie industry people buy homes on the beach, and close off all access. They also work to prevent the local government from building parking areas for the public. The result is that most of the beach is restricted to the few wealthy people who can afford homes.

The same process is taking place up the coast, into Ventura, Montecito, Santa Barbara. Supposedly it is hedge fund money buying up the coast.

Beaches should be deemed a public asset. No houses should be built on the beach. Instead, there should be roads built to give access to the beach, parking areas, public bathrooms, maybe concession stands for public use, and houses can be built inland.

If the beaches are a public asset, nobody should be allowed to block access. Public funds should only be spent on public assets. Any beach area in the country which includes restricted access to the public should not receive any public funding. Rebuilding houses along the beach is absurd in light of projected erosion and global warming, but if some rich people want to spend their money doing it, and the local politicians are too corrupt to enforce common sense development restrictions in likely flood zones, so be it. But no public money should be spent on beaches limited to the rich.

Nov. 26 2012 12:26 PM
Michael Davidson from Newark NJ

Tourism in the State of NJ is a $37 billion industry, The Jersey shore accounts for about $13 billion dollars of the tourism in the State not $37 billion

Nov. 26 2012 11:20 AM

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