DNREC pushing for shorter dunes in Bethany

Bethany Beach residents and property owners continued this week to express concern over the impact of their new dune on the view from the town’s boardwalk, as work on the landmark 50-year beach reconstruction project moved to the north of the boardwalk.

dunes: Surveyors use high-tech equipment to measure progress of building the 16-foot-tall dune off Bethany Beach’s boardwalk on Wednesday, Oct. 10. Active dune building moved north of the boardwalk this week, as local and state officials formally requested the tCoastal Point • M. PATRICIA TITUS
Surveyors use high-tech equipment to measure progress of building the 16-foot-tall dune off Bethany Beach’s boardwalk on Wednesday, Oct. 10. Active dune building moved north of the boardwalk this week, as local and state officials formally requested the t

“They’ve done something so destructive to the most wonderful, recreational kind of coast,” beachfront property owner Lynn Skynear said Monday as she worked to meet a goal of 1,000 signatures on a petition asking for a reduction in the 16-foot dune height. She already had 100 of those signatures on Monday.

“Of all the people I’ve asked to sign it, 85 percent of them have signed it,” Skynear said. “Most of them are very, very distraught.”

“You can’t do this in a little town like Bethany, where you live off the boardwalk,” Skynear added, offering concerns about the problems the curtailed view will pose for the elderly and families with children. “I think there are probably hundreds of residents who will be astounded. You’ll find people will come next year and you will lose a certain kind of resident.

“They’ve killed the goose that laid the golden egg,” she said.

Skynear was not alone in her concerns, as town and state officials, and the Coastal Point, continued to hear this week from those who want to see the dune’s height reduced. And they’re not alone.

“(DNREC) Sec. John Hughes is adamant that he wants to see 2 feet taken off top of dune,” said Program Administrator Tony Pratt of DNREC’s Shoreline and Waterway Management Section on Wednesday. “He thinks the loss of the view is very unacceptable.”

“DNREC, as an agency, would like to see people be able to walk along the boardwalk and see the beach,” Pratt said, “as long as we don’t end up with a community that’s at risk because of that.”

“John (Hughes) is committed to talking to everyone he can on a political level, to make sure they’re committed to getting this done on as efficient a basis as possible,” Pratt added.

Pratt continued to meet with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers over the past week, to see if the state can get an agreement from those who designed the project and paid for most of it that the dunes can be reduced from the long-planned 16-foot height.

“The Corps has committed that they will go back and re-examine the dune height,” Pratt assured. “They will decide if the community can be kept safe with a smaller dune. That will take some time,” he warned.

“The Corps understands the need for a timely response,” Pratt added. “But they don’t just go in a room and make a decision. They have to run it through a model and see what happens with the storms they have in their models. And that takes a fair amount of time.”

Though talk of petitions and lawsuits has begun to surface among those most vocal in their objections to the impact of the dune on boardwalk views, Pratt said most of what those working on the project had heard from boardwalk observers had actually been positive.

“I asked what he was hearing on the street here,” Pratt said of a Corps employee, “and 98 to 99 percent were saying ‘What a great job,’ ‘What a fabulous job you’re doing,’ and another 1 to 2 percent had negative comments about the dune,” Pratt said.

Pratt said he’d had only a half-dozen calls Monday and Tuesday in which people had expressed concerns.

“That’s been my experience, too,” Bethany Beach Mayor Carol Olmstead said Wednesday. “We have been getting complaints. But, with a majority of the people who have addressed the issue, once we explained about the funding and design and reason the height was determined, they understand what’s happening here and what has to happen.”

“We’re trying to explain that the funding was not given to make us a nice big beach but to protect property and lives. That’s what shoreline protection is about,” Olmstead said.

“The majority, once they understand that, are accepting,” she said. “They liked the way we could see the beach from the boardwalk. But they do understand that this is a good thing for our town, knowing that this is being built so that if we have a storm we’ll have adequate protection.”

The project was designed based on a feasibility report from the Corps released in 1989, which led to a public hearing held at Millville Town Hall that year, Pratt said.

“The dune was presented to the town council and everybody at that time,” he said. “I don’t remember exactly what was said then, but there was a decision made 15 or 16 years ago when that happened. The plan was put out there for public scrutiny,” he emphasized.

In the decade and a half since that hearing, the Corps finalized the proposed plans for the project — complete with the previously presented 16-foot dune — and officials on the local, state and federal level have worked to obtain funding to make it a reality.

“At this point in time, everybody just wanted the project to occur,” Pratt said. “I was thinking about the loss of recreational space that Bethany has had to suffer with the last couple of years. Dewey and Rehoboth and Fenwick have picked up that all that recreational use. Bethany hasn’t been competing well even within Delaware.

“I was also thinking about how we could get through another winter without $1 million in boardwalk damage,” he added, “and not so much about the relative height of the dune and boardwalk. And now we’re fighting to get 2 feet taken off.”

Visual impact bigger than expected

Despite the emphasis on the protection the dune provides to the town, Pratt and Olmstead both acknowledged that the dune was having a larger visual impact than most, if not everyone, expected.

“We’re all aware of the impact. The view from the boardwalk is a surprise. It was a surprise to everyone,” Olmstead said. “Even though we knew what the height was going to be, even though that was public information and was discussed at meetings, it wasn’t possible in our mind’s eye to really have a view of how obstructive it would be.”

Olmstead said the expectation was that 3 or 4 feet of dune peak above the base of the boardwalk wouldn’t make that much of a difference. “It’s not that it’s 3 feet higher,” she said. “It’s that it’s 3 feet higher and 100 feet wide. It’s the width of the dune that’s really a problem.”

“Everybody shares the same feeling that, ‘Oh, we lost something.’ ‘We lost the view from the boardwalk.’ Of course, we all feel like that,” Olmstead said. “Nobody foresaw what the impact of that large dune would have. Everybody has been focusing height, but it’s the inability to see across that dune that is really a problem.”

Pratt’s perception of the problem is no different that Olmstead or many of those who have seen the work in person.

“I was down at Hollywood Street on the second day of construction and I was really hit by it,” Pratt admitted. “I said, ‘Oh my god, that can’t be the dune height.’ I asked them to check to make sure it was being constructed to the specs, and they said it was. So I started a dialogue immediately with the Corps.”

Pratt said subsequent discussions hadn’t filled him with optimism that the change was going to be made quickly or even at all, and he said he’d warned Olmstead about that.

“If they determine that will be an adequate dune, they will change it,” she said. “If they determine the 16-foot dune is necessary to protect the town and integrity of the beach, we will have to go with that,” she added.

Meanwhile, Pratt is still hopeful that some of the desired loss of dune height could come from natural compaction as the sand settles — especially as autumn rains begin to fall. He said he’s already seeing some settling in the dunes, even without significant rain.

“I’m 6’ 1” and when I was down on Hollywood 10 days ago, I could see a little strip of ocean and not much more,” Pratt explained Wednesday. “Yesterday, the dune appeared to have settled about a foot. I could see a plentiful amount of ocean. I could see people standing on the beach at waist height. Another foot down, and I’ll see the beach.”

The impact of a Tuesday-night rainstorm was not immediately apparent on Wednesday morning, with some 2 to 3 inches of rain estimated to have fallen overnight.

“We probably need more than that. It probably soaked into the dune about a foot,” Pratt said. “We need a good nor’easter, with rain for three days straight, and some vibration. That’s why we’re asking to mechanically reduce the dune top.”

Still, the settlement at Hollywood Street had Pratt feeling a little better about the dune height as it has been built to date. “It has been 10 days, and the horizon doesn’t vary. I’m seeing so much more ocean now. I’m very encouraged by that,” he said, though, “It’s not what we ultimately want.”

Pratt also said this week that he regretted the publication of a photo-illustration in DNREC’s August newsletter that appeared to depict a completed Bethany Beach shoreline reconstruction project, with a much smaller dune — the same sort of illustration that had previously been used for Rehoboth Beach.

“That was an attempt by somebody on my staff to show what a dune would look like, to let people envision a green strip in front of the boardwalk. It was not intended to show what your new dune and beach would look like,” he explained. “It was a mistake and, regrettably, misled some people.”

Only a small portion of the impact of the dune height can be attributed to varying measurements of the height of the boardwalk, Pratt also said this week. Plans for the project indicate boardwalk height varying from 12 feet to 13 feet along the structure’s length, with some points being exactly 12.5 feet — just 3.5 feet lower than the dune peak.

Added protection paramount to many

Pratt said he and Hughes are now asking for a 2-foot reduction in the dune height, which would leave it at 14 feet — about 1 to 2 feet above the boardwalk floor.

Any reduction in height of more than 2 feet is unlikely to happen, Pratt said.

“I have had people who tell me we need to cut it down by 5 feet. We can’t do 5 feet. We would end up with a flat beach again,” he said.

That is the last thing many in the town want, after years of enduring a dwindling beach and increasing concern over the potential impact of a hurricane or severe nor’easter on the town, its infrastructure, businesses and properties.

“Our town, for several years now, has been one good storm away from disaster,” Olmstead said. “People have been demanding the council do something about getting the funding. We worked as hard as we could and we got the funding, with the state and our legislators. It was a great team effort.”

Olmstead said she thinks the concern over the reality of the project is reasonable, however.

“I think this is very typical of what can happen when anything is done. What appears on paper isn’t always what’s going to appear in reality,” she said.

“I would ask that people be patient and let the project proceed. People who want to give input can make comments,” she said. “But if we remember that we all have the same concerns about the town, like having the town be protected and the boardwalk view to remain, and we try together to work it out — if people keep that in mind, we can all work together again and make everybody happy.”

“Nobody is out there trying to do something to make people unhappy or try to detract from our town in any way,” Olmstead emphasized.

“We are addressing it daily, doing best we can to explain to people and quell peoples’ concerns and make them understand,” she said. “I am as concerned as any other citizen. The council is concerned. And we’re working very closely with Tony Pratt and expressing all the concern of the people of Bethany Beach.”

“I’m down here every day,” she said. “I talk to Tony Pratt on a regular basis. He has been concerned. I have expressed concern. We’ll do what we can do to see if it can be rectified.

“It won’t be a fast process,” Olmstead warned. “It’s not like if people make a lot of noise, they’ll get the bulldozers out and take the top of the dune off. The Corps will re-evaluate it, and we’ll see.”

Pratt said he is currently looking at plans to build the dune crossovers and finish the dunes with seagrass and dune fencing, and how that might be impacted by any possible reduction in the dune’s height.

“We’d like to see the crossings go in as soon as possible,” he said. “But if it’s possible they could be lowered later on, we don’t want to have do them and then lower them by 2 feet. So, we’re looking at what it would take to lower the crossings, if we have to do that after they’ve been built.

“I’m talking extremely hypothetically,” he said, “But if the crosswalks are built in the next three months, and five months from now we decide to cut off 2 feet of dune, how can we lower those crossings? Do we want to hold off on the crossings until we make a final decision?”

While Pratt and many others await word from the Corps on the request for a lower dune — an answer that could be months in coming — Olmstead’s eye was on the bottom line that so many in the town have been seeking for so long.

“Next summer, when we have that great big beach, we will have a lot of happy people,” she said.