Erosion underscores lobbying efforts

Bethany Beach resident Bob Parsons spent part of his Thanksgiving holiday taking photographs of beach erosion from the coastal storm that hit the area Thanksgiving Eve and continued through the weekend, wreaking havoc to dunes and boardwalk alike.

But it wasn’t a photographic exercise or to show to distant friends.

Parsons is one of the members of the town’s Intergovernmental Relations Committee, and he was preparing key evidence to show to the state’s federal legislators leading into the new Congressional session in January.

“The News Journal said the ocean ‘crept under the boardwalk,’” Parsons reported with a bit of irritation at the committee’s Nov. 29 meeting.

He had the photographs to prove it had done more than “creep” and to suggest to legislators that the town and neighboring South Bethany are now more desperately than ever in need of federal funding for beach reconstruction.

Parsons’ holiday photographs show massive erosion to the town’s beach, not only creating a drop-off higher than a 6-foot-tall man but even undermining and breeching the town’s existing dune line. Parsons also reported damage to the supporting structures under the town’s boardwalk.

“There are three places where the bulkheads are bent or broken,” Parsons told his fellow committee members on Wednesday, referring to locations at Campbell Place, Second Street and near the Bethany Arms hotel.

He pointed out a photograph showing a distinct line atop the dunes, behind the bulkhead, where the basic structure of the bulkhead appeared to have been compromised. And he said he’d found a substantial support beam under the boardwalk that had been shattered by the wave action.

Coastal Point photographs from the height of the storm show not only the breeching of the dunes by ocean waters — flooding downtown Bethany with seawater rather than the usual tidal waters — but full-fledged ocean waves breaking over the front porches of boardwalk-fronting businesses.

In neighboring South Bethany, with no protective dune seaward of the town’s beachfront properties, the damage was even more obvious. Where there once were stairs that led to some of the town’s most expensive homes, there instead was a similar 6-foot drop-off and bits of shattered lumber that once were those stairs and broken water pipes.

South Bethany Mayor Gary Jayne, joining the committee at its meeting Wednesday, said the erosion hadn’t breeched oceanfront Ocean Drive but had come within 6 to 8 inches of doing so, nearing the damage sustained in the legendary nor’easters of 1992 and 1998.

“The sand now is leaning against the bulkhead,” Parsons said of the damage in Bethany. “If water gets behind it, it’s gone,” he added of the bulkhead. “The street’s next, and the houses behind it.”

If anything could underscore the dire situation the two towns find themselves in leading into wintertime — known for damaging nor’easters — it was the 2006 Thanksgiving storm. And that situation is clearly getting more desperate with every storm front that comes through the area.

Funding up in the air

Town and state officials have been waiting for federal funding for a so-called 50-year beach reconstruction project for years, and now find themselves waiting on the transition from a Republican-controlled Congress to a Democratic majority to see if federal funding for the joint project will be any more forthcoming than it has been under the Republicans.

The estimated $14.4 million in federal funding needed to complete the project has been difficult to come by, with recent changes to Army Corps of Engineers contractual procedures and opposition to funding of such projects from both the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations.

Hurricane Katrina did little to change that, with no funding awarded to the project in the House of Representatives draft of the 2007-fiscal-year budget. Just $3.3 million made it into the Senate’s version of appropriations bills, with the compromise version of the bill yet to be worked out in committee.

Committee member and registered lobbyist John Himmelberg said he expected that it would be at least January now before funding issues were tackled again, with Democrats biding their time until they officially take over the reins.

Himmelberg, though, said that might work in the beach towns’ favor, if after a delay, with Democratic Sens. Joseph Biden and Tom Carper taking on more powerful positions once the transition is made — poising them to be able to make deals that could quickly get such funding approved for their desperate constituents back home.

It was with that kind of change in mind that committee members prepared to tackle the issue with even greater fervor over the next few weeks.

They debated how best to proceed with getting the legislative attention and favor of Congressional power-players that will not only net them the $3.3 million promised in the Senate’s existing appropriation bill but, they hope, the full $14.4 million needed to complete the project and get the dredges pumping sand on to the increasingly damaged beaches before the end of 2007 — and before boardwalks, roads and houses sustain significant damage.

As it stands, state officials might come to their rescue with short-term replenishment if an emergency situation were to develop, but both town and state officials are hoping a longer-term solution will be found to save the beaches with the help of federal funding.

Parsons’ new information packet — complete with photographs — is the first salvo in the planned campaign by the two towns. And Wednesday’s meeting led into intensive discussions of how the town can best use lobbyists and its own people to plead the cause of the beach reconstruction project.

Himmelberg pushed town officials to arrange a face-to-face meeting with the two senators soon, saying that pleading their case in person would be the best way to convince the legislators to put even more muscle behind the project and, hopefully, go on to convince other powerful Senate Democrats — such as those on the body’s Appropriations Committee — to also go on record as supporting full funding for the project this fiscal year.

Lobbying plan discussed

Likewise, former legislative staffer Dan Costello, who joined the committee recently, said the best lobbying efforts the town could make would be through the senators, and the best lobbying to get them to make an extra effort might be through both face-to-face meetings and perhaps an “appropriations lobbyist.”

Costello said, with agreement from Himmelberg, that the existing lobbying/consulting firm employed by the towns, Marlowe and Co. — which specializes in working with the Corps of Engineers — might need complementary support in the form of someone senators already know and trust, someone who has access that few can claim and “knows how to get a project out of the appropriations committee.”

Himmelberg went on to suggest that the towns might also, alternatively, do well to forego professional lobbying for the meantime, instead using their own faces to push the issue in person.

Extending that idea, the two Beltway insiders said they felt the next best step was a face-to-face meeting that would show the Congressional delegation not only the support of local officials but voters from throughout the state.

Similarly, Jayne and Bethany Beach Mayor Olmstead focused on the grassroots efforts that have brought in hundreds of e-mails voicing support from residents — and voters — in neighboring states. They have been seeking to widen support inside the legislative bodies and particularly among those influential legislators who sit on appropriations committees, such as neighboring Sens. Barbara Mikulski (Maryland) and Arlen Spector (Pennsylvania), as well as West Virginia’s Sen. Robert Byrd.

In the end, the committee members voiced a need to make a strong move for support, and likely to urge an in-person meeting with the state’s Congressional delegation, before the next session convenes in January. Jayne and Olmstead were to spearhead the effort, with consultations from state officials and the towns’ lobbying firm.

Lobbyists to report to towns

This week, Marlowe and Co. representatives will also face direct questions about how the towns can most effectively lobby for federal funding for the project, with a meeting set for Monday, Dec. 4, at 1 p.m. at Bethany Beach Town Hall.

At that time, the public and officials from both towns will be able to ask questions about the status of the project and its funding, as well as how the lobbying efforts have gone and may go in the future.

Parsons and other committee members noted that they remain confident in the work of Marlowe and Co. but agreed that additional lobbying of a different kind, or a shift in current efforts, may be needed to make the most of their efforts and to, they hope, finally get the project on the move.

County issues also of concern

Also at the Nov. 29 meeting, committee members addressed a series of issues that will likely receive much of their focus, behind that top priority of beach replenishment.

At the core of nearly all of the issues is development in Sussex County, which in turn affects issues such as traffic and the planned Route 26 expansion (which has been delayed due to funding issues), as well as the associated “local roads” projects that have recently been denied federal funding.

Bethany Beach Town Council Member Steve Wode, who helped spearhead efforts by the Bethany-Fenwick Area Chamber of Commerce to have a third lane added along the entirety of the Route 26 project, told committee members that the Chamber plans another push for the project in the coming weeks and hopes to enlist area towns in emphasizing the needs for it that were already identified by state transportation officials.

Wode and Costello also agreed to take on monitoring of the Sussex County comprehensive plan, which is undergoing an update in the coming months. Himmelberg and other committee members agreed that additional hands would likely be needed to help monitor the work on the plan, as well as to do background research that will help the towns give the most educated input. He asked that interested persons contact the town to offer their help.

For his part, Wode said the towns’ input should reflect the changes they feel are needed in existing development rules in the county, rather than taking those rules as granted.

Wode also said the need for infrastructure to be in place prior to development might mean looking into the county’s responsibility for road maintenance and expansion as development continues to be focused on the eastern part of the county.

As county officials open the floor to public input on the comprehensive plan in the coming months, they can expect to see strong representation of the beach town and its neighbors, with concerns over the pace of growth in the area and its impact on infrastructure and residents alike.