DNREC: Wait for possible dune reduction 'prudent'

Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC) officials responded this week to a letter sent recently by Lt. Col. Gwen Baker, Philadelphia district commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, to the Town of Bethany Beach.

The letter has — at least temporarily — dashed hopes from some that the town’s new dune could be reduced in height by 2 feet, as DNREC officials had requested the Corps consider in the wake of complaints about a reduced shoreline view from the boardwalk once the dune was constructed.

Bethany Beach officials released a statement late on March 6 with text from the Corps letter to the town. It begins as follows:

“The Town of Bethany Beach has received notice from United States Army Corps of Engineers that the Corps will not be reducing the height of the Bethany Beach Dune at this time.”

Town officials said that, specifically, the Corps has advised the town that:

“DNREC (Delaware Department of Natural Resources) has been notified that the District’s position is that we will not sacrifice the costs of dune grass and crossovers to lower the dune.”

The grass planting and dune crossover work was and is being completed under the direction of the Corps, with federal and state monies in a 65/35 cost share.

The letter continues, “The Corps, however, is engaged in a significant re-analysis of the dune height needed to afford the Town the protection it needs from coastal storms.”

According to the town, “The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers goes on to say that this re-analysis ‘is complex and we will not have an answer for several months. If the analysis proves that a lower wider dune can provide the same level of protection, all future renourishment cycles will maintain the dune based on those revised requirements. The existing constructed dune, completed on 23 Feb 08, will not be altered.’”

Mayor Carol Olmstead told the Coastal Point on March 4 that Baker’s letter also referenced prior statements by DNREC Shoreline and Waterway Program Administrator Tony Pratt to the Coastal Point that the planting of the grasses was not an end to the discussion of the possibility of reducing the dune height, since state equipment and employees could be used to lower the dune peak after it was done.

Some who had supported the reduction had been alarmed when the dune grass was planted last month as part of the Corps contract for the project, and Pratt’s assurance that it was not the end of the discussion came in response to that concern.

The tenor of the issue returned for some last week, when town officials received Baker’s letter that put any possible dune height reduction off well beyond the start of the summer season for 2008 and possibly to 2011 or 2012, which is when the standard three- to four-year replenishment period for the project would begin.

DNREC officials issued their first public response to the Corps letter on Wednesday, March 12.

“DNREC’s position is that we think it is a prudent way to go forward,” Pratt told the Coastal Point. “We think Col. Baker has laid out a good path forward.”

In commenting on Baker’s letter, Mayor Carol Olmstead had emphasized that the issue was not one in which the town itself was taking a position but was instead something between DNREC and the Corps.

Pratt, however, appeared to include the town as a major determining agent in the eventual fate of the dune, if the Corps’ analysis supports a reduction.

“We’re waiting for analysis from their engineers to determine if the dune will offer the same level of protection if reduced to 14 feet in height. And if that’s a consideration, and if all the parties want to move forward, then that’s something we would consider doing at the first renourishment cycle.”

Whether the push in Bethany Beach to reduce the dune height will wane over the intervening three to four years — and how the dune height will impact the town in the meantime — remains to be seen.

There has already been clear division in the town over the issue, between those who want the dune reduced to restore a view of crashing waves from the boardwalk and those who favor any added storm protection it might provide at the current height.

This summer season will also be the first time many of the town’s property owners and regular visitors see just what the new beach looks like. Whether their reaction to the widened beach and new dune will be positive, negative or somewhere in between also has yet to be revealed.