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A Beach with a View – Rebuilding New Jersey’s Coastal Dunes

Sand dunes at sunset, Cape Henlopen State Park, Delaware, USABy Griff Evans and Keith Bowers

One of the biggest challenges for New Jersey, in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, is the federal and state governments’ inability to compel local landowners to sign off on easements to allow sand dunes to be fully restored in front of their homes. The selfishness of a few has robbed many of their neighbors of the protection that is offered to them.  One could argue that we shouldn’t be building on coastal barrier islands to begin with,  but putting that aside, now is the time to think about how to rebuild using natural ecosystem resilience as the foundation for reviving New Jersey’s coastal communities and economy.

It’s always about the view.  Since when does the view of a select few outweigh the cost to the public of subsidizing insurance rates, beach re-nourishment and storm recovery costs? There is clear evidence that homes, communities, and adjacent ecosystems protected by sand dunes suffered much less damage than those that ignored this natural defense mechanism.   With undeniable sea level rise and predicted increases in the number and intensity of storms, restoring a healthy, robust and continuous system of dunes should be the first step in ensuring the long-term sustainability of communities on these barrier islands.

Now is the time for the State of New Jersey and the federal government to step in and play hardball.  No new building permits should be issued to those ocean front lot owners who will not agree to sign easements granting the state or local agency the authority to restore coastal dunes. Similarly, federal flood insurance should be refused to those who do not agree to allow easements on their property for the construction of sand dunes.  Once again politics and individualism has supplanted common sense and science.

Dunes are a natural buffer against storm surges.  Their specific location, shape and size are critical to protecting inland areas from high water, wind and salt spray. Conceding, or worse yet, ignoring any one of these components can cause the entire system to fail. For example, building dunes that are too narrow, too low, or placed in the wrong area can render them useless against high storm events.  Building on a barrier island should be a privilege, and science, common sense and community good should trump individual views.

What we are afraid will happen, as often seems to be the case, is that once things start getting back to normal, ocean front lot owners will forget how bad things were and slip back into their old habits. They’ll want their “view” back again, complain about rising insurance rates, and blame everyone else for what future storms will do to their properties. Instead, let’s learn from what happened and insist that these New Jersey barrier island communities accept the valuable protection offered to them, through federal, state and local dollars.  This is critical to the good of their communities, and to helping ensure that the beaches, homes, and recreational opportunities that so many generations have enjoyed, are preserved so that their kids have a chance to create their own “Jersey shore memories.”

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