A three-year old public property acquisition that cost taxpayers more than $2 million is rapidly washing away with each tide and has been periodically closed to visitors out of concerns for safety. The erosion at Dauphin Island’s West End Beach may eventually force the destination to close completely, unless the town can secure at least $30 million to restore it, along with the rest of its receding shoreline.
While erosion along the entire island has been a pervasive problem throughout its history, the issue at West End Beach appears to be exacerbated by the recent construction of a seawall on a parcel of private property immediately to the east. Aerial photos taken last month show telltale signs of “downdrift erosion,” according to people familiar with the situation, who also indicate there are few regulations against building fortifications on that section of beach.
The seawall at 2941 Bienville Blvd. is one of at least three constructed on Dauphin Island’s west end since 2010 which under normal circumstances, would be evaluated and permitted by the Alabama Department of Environmental Management. But in a testament to the island’s erosion, ADEM’s regulations are restricted to development along the Coastal Construction Line (CCL), which on the west end has disappeared underwater over the past 10 years. In fact, the property at 2941 Bienville Blvd. didn’t used to be waterfront — there are still two parcels to the south of it that are currently underwater.
Scott Douglass, a coastal engineer who has studied erosion and authored a restoration plan for the town of Dauphin Island, said ADEM has not adjusted the CCL as the island’s shoreline has shifted and as a result, there are no regulatory barriers for seawalls, which can provide protection for property behind them, but also degrade adjacent parcels.
“There was a line drawn and the regulations were promulgated in the ‘80s and today, that line is two lots south of that wall,” Douglass said. “So I think the logic for why no one ever had to evaluate whether or not it fit in Coastal Control Act regulations is that the property doesn’t intersect the line, so therefore they don’t have jurisdiction, which also means ADEM is not managing the beach. I understand why private property owner would want to protect their property and build a seawall, but it’s questionable why you can’t build south of the CCL but if you’re one block to the north, all of the regulations are off the table.”
The 400-foot wide West End Public Beach was acquired in Dec. 2010 from West Dauphin, LLC for at least $816,160 from the town of Dauphin Island plus $840,000 from Mobile County, which earmarked money from the Coastal Impact Assistance Program (CIAP), a federal program that diverts proceeds from mineral leases to environmental causes. Former ADEM Director Riley Boykin Smith is a principal of West Dauphin, LLC.
Dauphin Island Mayor Jeff Collier explained the acquisition was sought as leverage to allow the town to pursue more federal restoration money after the hurricanes Ivan and Katrina and the BP oil spill. Collier said the beach has been forced to close several times over the past few months, notably over Labor Day weekend, when the utilities department had to shut off water and sewer connections because they were being threatened by the encroaching Gulf. He said erosion there is natural, but it seems to have sped up with the help of the seawall.
“I fully understand when homeowners are losing their property we have to put ourselves in those positions and say, ‘what would I do,’” Collier said. “On the other side of the coin, if their property protection is causing harm to other property owners, it creates a whole new set of issues. Any hard structure in the surf zone is likely to have detrimental effect to adjacent property. It might be clear to me something has caused a major increase in erosion of the town’s (west end) public beach and it seems to be pretty much in sync with construction of that wall, but I’m not a coastal engineer.”
But Douglass, who is a coastal engineer, put the blame squarely on the seawall.
“That’s what I’d expect to see and it’s a shame the public beach is immediately downdrift of that structure because it’s suffering a much greater degree of erosion,” Douglass said, adding at the same time, the property to the immediate east of seawall is gaining sand.
Dr. George Crozier, a former director of the Dauphin Island Sea Lab, said he and other individuals warned the town of this very scenario years ago, but no one took action to prevent it.
“We knew it was an erosive area adding structures would only accelerate it,” he said. “We objected formally to ADEM five years ago when the first seawall went in. We were told not only were they not going to move the Coastal Construction Line, but they also didn’t see the structures in question as seawalls. They considered them ‘sand retention devices.’ We predicted all this five or six years ago and every authority ignored us. Now all the sudden the island has invested real dollars in that beach and they’re going to let one homeowner jeopardize it.”
Collier said besides issuing a building permit, the town doesn’t have any ordinances against seawall construction and even with the loss of public property, haven’t considered it.
“The issue of additional regulations have come up from time to time but we have not put together review committee and I’m guessing we will continue to see property owners taking those types of actions to protect their property from eroding,” he said. “But it goes back to the fact collectively, we’re not doing anything to solve the main problem. Whether it’s the Corps or the state or on down the line, there has been no desire to help us solve this problem long-term.”
Douglass said there is a greater perception Dauphin Island has been pandering for public money to preserve private property, but he argues the value of the west end is not in whatever tax revenue it may generate for the town.
“Barrier islands serve a more important function as speedbumps for hurricanes,” he said. “Everything north of Dauphin Island would be in much worse shape if storm surge impacted it uninhibited. So when I look at that mile and a half of rocks that bridge Katrina Cut or [the public beach erosion], I see what will happen if we don’t renourish. If we are going to armor our shorelines, I think we can find ways to armor that last and not change their character completely, but the long-term answer is a more comprehensive approach.”
Dauphin Island has attempted for years to get significant funding for a comprehensive beach restoration project, one Douglass said would cost between $30 million and $70 million. The proposal would dump 4 million cubic yards of sand around the island, then work with the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers to place material dredged from the Mobile Ship Channel in a more suitable location to drift toward the island naturally. While the plan sounds expensive, Douglass pointed out that New Jersey was recently awarded $1 billion to restore beaches degraded by Hurricane Sandy.
Collier said it his priority as a member of the Alabama Gulf Coast Recovery Council, which stands to distribute civil penalties from the BP oil spill, to implement the best restoration plan BP will pay for and it’s likely the town will continue to allow seawall construction, even if it infringes on public use.
“It’s kind of hard to do little stuff,” he said. “You have to jump through hoops and I don’t see a lot a lot of salvation in those smaller, ad lib attempts. So we have to have something more comprehensive. Whatever we do is going to have to be substantial and comprehensive to really turn the erosion process around and I don’t think there are a lot of little things to be done.”