Beach funds on the way

Property owners and residents in Bethany Beach and South Bethany are rejoicing this week, now that they are one step closer to having their dwindling shoreline replenished.

The jubilation was in evidence late Monday, as news filtered to various officials that the final version of the conference bill reconciling federal funding for such projects in the differing U.S. House of Representatives and Senate bills had erred on the positive side of compromise for the towns.

“We’re happy,” South Bethany Mayor Gary Jayne told the Coastal Point mid-week. “This is a very positive sign, a step in the right direction.”

The total from federal coffers now lined up to be spent on the two-town reconstruction project in the 2006 fiscal year: $3 million – a bit less than the $4 million in the Senate bill, but significantly more than the total lack of funding in the House version or presidential budget recommendations.

While the goal for federal funding had been set at $4 million or $5 million, depending on who was doing the calculations and when, Bethany Beach Mayor Jack Walsh was quick to note that the federal funding will be supplemented by state coffers, at a 65/35 match ratio. That adds up to roughly $4.65 million total for the initial construction phase of the project.

“It’s construction money. That’s the real stuff,” Walsh said Wednesday. “It’s going to get the whole process going.”

Walsh added, “The initial construction phase will span a few years, leading to a much wider beach that will offer significantly more storm protection for our community. This level of funding is a very positive step for our project.”

The Bethany-South Bethany project has been in limbo, with moves to totally curtail federal replenishment funding in recent years and the project area being the last in the pipeline of Delaware’s so-called 50-year replenishments. (Lewes, Rehoboth Beach and Dewey Beach have already been completed, while Fenwick Island is currently nearing the end of its own construction phase, with all funding assured.)

Town officials have sought to get the Bethany-South Bethany project over the hump from engineering phases into pre-construction work in the last year, finally hiring replenishment consultant and lobbying firm Marlowe & Co. over the winter to help obtain the funding and keep abreast of developments in Washington.

That effort appeared to have paid off this week, with news that the funding is likely on the way.

“I’m pleased at the effort everyone put into this,” Jayne said. “Literally hundreds of people have contacted Congress on behalf of this project, which is very heartening.”

Walsh echoed the sentiment.

“We had so many people help us with this. They have been using links the lobbyist developed … that allowed you to e-mail your state senator or congressman. All you had to do was put in your ZIP code and you would get the appropriate senator,” he said.

“We had over 1,200 direct responses to legislators,” he noted. “Countless visitors and residents of Bethany Beach urged Congress to fund this important project over the past year.”

Bethany Beach’s point-man on replenishment, former council member Bob Parsons, said the town had done particularly well in that venue.

“Folks whose homes are out of state were very good about contacting their legislators by e-mail,” he emphasized.

“All that stuff helped,” Walsh added. “The Marlowe folks helped us.”

Walsh was quick to credit the state’s legislators, as well.

“Our own senators and congressman were very instrumental in helping us with this — they were pushing all the way for us,” he said. “We are very appreciative of the support we have received from Delaware’s congressional delegation and other members of Congress to help move this project forward. It was very much a team effort.”

While the news of federal funding in the conference bill was received with great relief in coastal Delaware this week, it is worth noting that it lies just short of being a done deal. It still has to be passed by both houses of Congress and signed by the president. But that’s basically a formality at this point.

“The bill will most likely be approved by both the House and the Senate this week. And President Bush will sign it into effect after it passes both chambers,” Walsh said. “It’s very likely it will pass. Because once it passes at committee level, it’s very unlikely it will be changed.”

Once that happens, work will again go into getting the project actually under way. Bethany Beach has received easements from more than half of the property owners who needed to provide them for that part of the project to go forward. And the remaining easements are being sought through regular meetings with the Army Corps of Engineers and Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control at the town hall.

The lingering question is whether the $3 million is really enough, with that $4 million or $5 million hoped-for amount still lingering in everyone’s minds.

Jayne said he’d received a verbal indication, unconfirmed, from DNREC replenishment guru Tony Pratt that the Army Corps of Engineers would be able to move forward on the Bethany/South Bethany project with no more than $2 million in hand.

Parsons said, “They had reported to us earlier in the year that the most they would have been able to use would have been $5 million. We requested $4 million and got $3 million.” He added that the Corps will use all of the money granted to get the project started, no matter how far it gets them.

Council Member Richard Ronan, chair for South Bethany’s beach replenishment committee, said the Army Corps was unlike many governmental agencies, in that it could start work with less than 100 percent of required funding earmarked. And with at least partial funding now secured, Ronan suggested Bethany/South Bethany could see work on the project as early as spring 2006.

“One thing everyone asks and we don’t have an answer is, ‘When are we going to see sand on the beach?’” Parsons admitted.

The exact details of the schedule and what the initial funds will cover will have to be worked out, Parsons noted.

“It’s the initial phase of construction,” he said. “Our consultant asked them to give us an updated schedule of events. And that’s what we’ll find out in the schedule. The Corps is working very well with us and we just asked them yesterday (Tuesday).”

Cementing the whole of the project is still a priority for the local officials, including Walsh.

“What we have to do now is continue to encourage our legislators — we obviously need more money,” he said. “The whole bill (for the project to be completed) is $25 million — 65 percent federal. The state has to come up with 35 percent.”

With that in mind, Walsh said he expected some word to arrive from state officials in the near future. “We’re probably going to hear something more official from the state within the next week or so.”

While he deferred to greater experts on the subject, Walsh said he expected $3 million would be enough to get the process started. “You’ve got to add the state funds,” he said. “That’s $4 million right there. The Corps is really going to manage that money and how it’s spent and just what segment of construction that’s going to get us into.”

Parsons was more pragmatic about the lesser amount.

“The short answer is, yes, we can use the money. It just means that it’s going to be slowed down by a fourth,” he said, indicating the limited funding might push off completion for a bit longer than had been hoped.

“When we get down to the next construction phase, once we’ve got the bulldozers moved in… it looks like we’ve got a lot of stuff done but we didn’t bring any sand in yet,” he added.

Parsons said measuring the project by dollar amounts would prove difficult on that basis. With a several-year construction timetable, estimates of cost could change and additional funds could be provided — or not. Parsons, for one, intends to remain involved.

“I’ve been grateful that both (former) Mayor (Joseph) McHugh and Mayor Walsh have asked me to continue to be the point guy on beach reconstruction. I’m enjoying it and I’m going to keep working at it,” he said.

Notably, the key line of demarcation on the project has been — and remains — getting enough federal funding to actually bring in dredges and get the sand moving onto the beaches. And that seems to be all but guaranteed this week — excellent news for the shore towns after years of waiting.

Overall, the air of elation carried the week, and Walsh was in a mood of justified optimism, especially considering some of the darker predictions for the federal funding this year. That included Sen. Tom Carper, who Walsh said had a more conservative prediction of what the towns might expect in federal funding when they discussed it around the Fourth of July.

“He felt if you got $1.5 million, that was more realistic. And now we got $3 million. He wasn’t as optimistic as a number of us were. But you never know how this thing is going to play out. The Senate initially provided $4 million and the House nothing,” Walsh noted.

The Bethany Beach mayor said the next move for residents and property owners of the two towns might be to offer thanks and request continued support for the project as it starts to move from wish to reality.