WASHINGTON – Ocean City Mayor James Mathias defended the city’s development and beach replenishment efforts Thursday to a panel of coastal scientists and urged them to fight for continued federal funding for coastal programs.
“I have a community that sustains a tremendous amount of jobs and taxes, and I have to make sure it stays viable,” Mathias said at a daylong National Academy of Sciences conference on natural coastal disasters.
The federal government has paid about half the cost of the city’s beach replenishment project in its first 10 years, but Mathias and others now fear federal funds may be in jeopardy.
The Bush administration had already been considering a change in the funding formula that would force state and local governments to pay a larger percentage of beach repair costs. Now, as the government reshuffles its priorities in the wake of Sept. 11 to pay for anti-terrorism and economic stimulus initiatives, Mathias fears beach funding may be at risk of being cut.
He noted the value of the government’s investment: The $74 million project, paid for with federal state, city and Worcester County funds, has saved about $238 million in its 10 years through reduced erosion and the costs that come with it.
To maintain its beach, Ocean City must dredge up to 1 million cubic yards of sand from a few miles offshore about every four years to replace lost sand, said city engineer Terence McGean. That costs about $8 million to $10 million.
Rising sea levels — as mountain glaciers melt and oceans heat up due to global warming — are partly to blame for loss of Ocean City’s beaches, which are eroding at the rate of about 2 feet a year.
Many scientists voiced support for Ocean City’s beach replenishment project. In erosion “hot spots,” like Sandbridge, Va., it is not possible to fix the beach, no matter how much money and sand is poured into the project, said scientist Bruce Douglas. But he said Ocean City is different.
“Because of the slow rate of erosion at Ocean City, fixing the beach may make sense economically,” said Douglas, senior research scientist at the Laboratory for Coastal Studies at Florida International University.
Some said the program is viable, but may not work indefinitely.
“The sand could stay there for 10 years, or they could lose it all in one storm,” said J. Court Stevenson of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.
Still, he said, that does not mean Ocean City should not be there.
“If you’re going to build a city anywhere on the East Coast, the location of Ocean City is as good as any,” he said.
Some at the forum questioned whether the federal government should subsidize Ocean City’s beach replenishment.
“They’re doing beach nourishment intelligently and it’s working. But should the taxpayers pick up the tab?” asked Douglas. He suggested that beach- goers or Ocean City property owners could be taxed to cover the costs of renewing the beach they use.
But Mathias and others argued that Ocean City residents who pay taxes on second homes in the beach resort, without overtaxing government services there, may be paying more than their share.
“It may well be that Ocean City homeowners are subsidizing the rest of the state,” said James G. Titus, a project manager for sea level rise at the Environmental Protection Agency.