Closer, but still no beach replenishment timetable

U.S. Rep. Mike Castle (R-Del.) brought good tidings to Bethany Beach this week, in officially announcing some $3.1 million for the planned Bethany Beach-South Bethany beach reconstruction project in the federal budget for the 2006 fiscal year.
Coastal Point • RUSLANA LAMBERT: Rep. Mike Castle, left, and Tony Pratt discuss plans for the Bethany Beach-South Bethany replenishment project.Coastal Point • RUSLANA LAMBERT:
Rep. Mike Castle, left, and Tony Pratt discuss plans for the Bethany Beach-South Bethany replenishment project.

But the official announcement came in the lingering absence of a timetable for the project, since additional funding will be required in the 2007 fiscal year and that amount — if any — likely won’t be determined until nearly the time construction on the project was hoped to start, in the fall of 2006, or later.

Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC) replenishment guru Tony Pratt joined Castle for the announcement Jan. 6 on the Bethany Beach boardwalk, but he was still unable to give a firm answer on whether changes in contract regulations with the Army Corps of Engineers would allow the construction of the new beach to begin in August or September, as is hoped.

“There is no definitive answer yet,” Pratt said after the event.

The same appropriations bill that granted the federal funding for the project also eliminated the long-standing practice of “continuing contracts” that would allow a single contract for the construction to initially begin with one fiscal year’s funding and continue into the next fiscal year, which begins each October.

That means Corps officials will have to determine how best to arrange for contracts and funding for a project that will, by necessity, require more than one year’s federal funds and the 35 percent state share that goes with them.

According to Pratt, the Corps is still working on sifting through the language in the lengthy 2006 appropriations bill to determine whether the funding from the 2006 fiscal year can be carried over into October 2006 (or later). That would allow for a single contract to be made for the entire project, from start to finish, with a likely October 2006 construction start. That’s the most efficient option, Pratt emphasized. “We could keep on truckin’,” he said.

The other possibility, Pratt explained, would be a series of two contracts: one using the 2006-fiscal-year funds to get started in August or September and a second one using any funds in the 2007-fiscal-year budget for work starting again in October. “We’ll have to stop,” Pratt noted. That could mean using the funding less efficiently, as well as potential additional delays in the actual construction as final appropriations are determined.

That appropriations process is complex, and as proven with budgets of years past, usually fraught with thorny last-minute wrangling to determine final funding amounts between differing U.S. House of Representatives and Senate bills, as well as the president’s budgetary recommendations (generally for no funding) that are proffered in February each year and are the starting point for the process.

This year, the Bethany-South Bethany project’s funding came down to the wire as the conference committee aimed to bridge the gap between the total lack of funding for it in the House appropriations bill and the $4 million in the Senate version, which were passed in their individual houses on May 24 and July 1, respectively.

In the end, it was Nov. 7, 2005, before the conferees approved the bill, with $3.1 million for the project. It was passed by both houses as of Nov. 14, and signed into law by President George W. Bush on Nov. 19.

If the 2007 funding follows suit, it could be November 2006 before town officials know for sure when — or if — the project will actually get under way. That’s not the most likely outcome, and Pratt said state officials are planning the project as if it will start in the early fall, making sure all its ducks are in a row should they be assured early on that the funding will be forthcoming.

That means not only gathering the needed easements from beachside property owners (voluntary at this time, and slowly dwindling to a few holdouts) but also making early stabs at bidding documents and related contracts, as well as coordinating with the Corps.

The most likely venue for that early assurance would be solid funding amounts in both the Senate and House versions of the 2007 appropriations Energy and Water appropriations bill. A significant amount for the project in both versions would leave the conference committee only to determine the final exact amount in a middle ground above the minimum needed for the project.

That may or may not happen. Only time will tell.

“This happens every year,” Castle noted. “You have to be faithful through this.”

In the meantime, Bethany Beach and South Bethany officials were eager to accept the formal word of this year’s funding from Castle and Pratt on the boardwalk overhanging a dwindling beach.

“Where’s the beach?” Pratt inquired good-naturedly but pointedly upon arriving at the boardwalk. “It’s hard to remember when Rehoboth looked like this,” he said, referring to the now-completed renovation project in Rehoboth Beach and Dewey Beach.

Bethany Vice-Mayor Carol Olmstead and Town Manager Cliff Graviet were joined on a chilly, windy Friday by Town Council Members Lew Killmer, Jerry Dorfman and Harry Steele, and South Bethany Town Council Member Marge Gassinger and Town Manager Mel Cusick, as well as state Sen. George Howard Bunting Jr. and Rep. Gerald Hocker, in greeting that official announcement.

“It’s nice,” Olmstead allowed, while admitting some lingering concern about the future funding.

Steele had his own dry commentary on the beach’s dwindling breadth upon arriving for the event, asking with some sarcasm, “What’s the problem?” And Graviet introduced Castle by saying the congressman would talk about replenishing “the beach we don’t have.”

Indeed, “We don’t have much of a beach,” Castle said in opening his remarks.

The congressman particularly noted the beach’s impact on the area’s economic health, including the financial well-being of boardwalk-area stores, the real estate market and other coastal businesses.

“Without the beach, these stores wouldn’t be here,” he said, gesturing at the dozens of downtown shops. “A lot of the economy of the area wouldn’t be here.” Emphasizing that point, Pamela McComas of the Bethany-Fenwick Area Chamber of Commerce was also in attendance at the event.

“It’s about more than just how much room there is to sit on the beach,” Castle said.

Pratt allowed that there had been some minor complaints about the Rehoboth Beach-Dewey Beach project, which was completed this year with a wide expanse of new beach and built-up dunes.

Initial complaints about the grade of sand — leaning toward the rocky — have been headed off for the Bethany Beach-South Bethany project by planning to use a different borrow site from the Rehoboth Beach project, as was done in Fenwick Island. That project is nearing its own completion, with some $1.7 million in additional federal funding also in the 2006 fiscal year budget.

The other complaints about the Rehoboth Beach project, Pratt said, were that the new beach “will be too wide to get to the water.” He said that minor issue would be taken care of by the “washing effect” of winter weather, which will somewhat diminish the new beach — as expected and planned for — just as it makes further blows to the increasingly slender span in Bethany and South Bethany.

Once completed, the beach in Bethany is expected to resemble the work done in its northerly neighbor, with a new dune-line reaching to the level of the existing boardwalk, or slightly higher. And, “Where the tallest waves are breaking,” Pratt said, “people will be sitting.”

Hocker noted that this large step forward on the project owed itself to the work of the state’s legislators, Castle and Sens. Tom Carper and Joseph Biden. Bunting likewise noted that issue of funding had “never been a selling game with Congressman Castle.”

All the local and state officials are hoping that remains the case as the last of the three Delaware beach reconstruction projects nears its construction phase and that the fervor for the project will likewise be the case with Castle, Biden and Carper’s colleagues on Capital Hill.

Looking ahead to the time when dredges are actually pumping sand onto the town’s shores and beyond the impact of the finished shoreline, Steele noted the project’s potential to itself turn into an attraction.

“In the past, people have come to watch the replenishment. This could be an attraction for the shoulder season,” Steele opined.