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Sandbridge beach may get more sand next year, but will there be federal help when it comes time to pay the bill?

An image from the 2013 beach renourishment project in Sandbridge. The project was funded with local dollars, aside from federal emergency funds that replaced sand lost to a storm. [U.S. Army Corps of Engineers]

BY JOHN-HENRY DOUCETTE

COURTHOUSE — Since the days before the modern city, Virginia Beach has paid to add more sand to the beach – and it ultimately entered into formal arrangements with the federal government that include cost sharing and cooperation on projects. 

Replenishment projects mostly are meant to fight erosion and provide hurricane protection, but they have obvious recreational and economic benefits. Replenishment began at the Oceanfront in 1950 and at Sandbridge in 1998. A Sandbridge project in 1962 repaired the beach after the destructive and deadly Ash Wednesday storm, but it was not part of an established plan.

City officials hope the next effort at Sandbridge will happen next year.

A 2002 agreement between the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the city about Sandbridge was signed by former City Manager Jim Spore and U.S. Army Col. Dave Hansen, then the district engineer for the corps – and the person who ultimately succeeded Spore as manager of Virginia Beach. 

It pledged – subject to appropriations – hundreds of millions toward future nourishment projects over 50 years.

However, availability of federal money through appropriations is not a sure thing.

Now Hansen is among the city officials hoping the federal government will help Virginia Beach pay for costly projects that restore the vital beaches here. In recent years, he said, the federal government has not kept up its end. This has led to struggles to pay for projects and delays in restoring local beaches.

“It amazes me that, in a time of increased severity of weather events and sea level rise, our federal government does not place a value on our coastal protection,” Hansen said.

“Virginia Beach is the commonwealth of Virginia’s largest tourist attraction,” he said. “It is critically important that we preserve the economy and its subsequent contribution to providing jobs and generating revenue for our city, the region and our state.”

This year’s proposed Trump administration budget recommends cuts to the corps of engineers. The corps has been targeted before, including in Obama administration proposals, but Congress sometimes restores funding that helps local communities.

But nothing is certain, and Sandbridge has become self-reliant in recent years. The city hopes for federal funding, but the reality of the situation means that the city is prepared to go it alone to fund the nourishment programs that protect Sandbridge’s residents, the rental industry and businesses.

Again.

Sandbridge has a special service district, sometimes called by the acronym SSD, meant to provide its additional tax dollars for the “local share” of beach and shoreline management, including replenishment, according to the city code. The district aims to keep the beach stable, fighting natural erosion to protect recreation areas, property and the value of a residential community that doubles as a vacation destination. 

Agreements with the corps are meant to benefit from the corps’ regulatory and project management expertise while also providing federal money for expensive projects. 

The split is supposed to be 35 percent local money with the federal government picking up the rest.

In 2011, Virginia Beach offered to foot an estimated $15 million bill through Sandbridge revenue to restore the beach. 

At the time, the corps could not take local money for the project, according to a report by The Virginian-Pilot’s Deirdre Fernandes.

Ultimately, Fernandes wrote, it took action by Congress to allow the local dollars to pay for the project while allowing the corps’ regulatory expertise to guide it.

The city announced that Congress had cleared the way for Sandbridge to fund replenishing its eroding beaches, granting the corps of engineers the ability to oversee the beach widening. 

According to the city, Mayor Will Sessoms and City Councilmember Barbara Henley, who represents the Princess Anne District, worked with U.S. Sen Mark Warner, D-Va., and then-U.S. Rep. Scott Rigell, R-Virginia Beach, to include language in a federal omnibus bill.

“We are delighted that our friends in Washington were able to get Virginia Beach residents the help we needed to maintain our beaches,” Sessoms said at the time.

Hurricane Sandy, the destructive 2012 storm, stole 138,000 cubic yards of sand from Sandbridge as it bypassed Virginia Beach on its way to the northeastern U.S. 

The following year, a replenishment project which included dredging and placing sand, delivered 2 million cubic yards of sand to roughly five miles of beach without federal dollars. Nearly 135,000 cubic yards lost to Sandy was restored through emergency funds. 

“We actually got some federal money for the Oceanfront and Sandbridge due to Sandy,” said Phill Roehrs, the city’s water resources engineer overseeing flood control, navigation and estuary habitat restoration. For Sandbridge, it meant extra sand in an effort that cost, sum total, roughly $16.1 million, largely from local dollars.

At the time of the 2013 project, Sessoms said replenishment protects the beach while helping neighbors such as the nearby military installation at Dam Neck and the Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge. 

Though the main project was funded with local dollars from Sandbridge, it was completed in conjunction with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and through a contractor. The project required sand from the outer continental shelf, which is managed by the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.

As the mayor noted then, this was a pretty good deal for Uncle Sam. 

Folks in Sandbridge paid for it through taxes in the special services district, as well as the Sandbridge Tax Increment Financing District created in the late 1990s which, as Henley noted, essentially serves as a backup funding source. Local money may pay for the replenishment of Sandbridge’s beach that officials hope will happen next year.

Federal money would help, though.

 “We hope they step up,” Roehrs said. “For Sandbridge, we actually locally funded the project the last time it was replenished. We certainly hope our federal partner steps up and contribute, but, because of our special revenue stream, we are in all likelihood able to perpetuate the program ourselves.”

Replenishment has been an essential component to Sandbridge’s beach. Prior to 1998, Roehrs said that sometimes at high tide “we were measuring the depth of the water at the bulkheads, not the width of the beach. … We’re monitoring the beach and tracking it. While I agree with the philosophy that there’s no beach too wide, we’re not at the tipping point.”

Roehrs said the most recent survey of the beach indicates it has about three years “of life” left. “We, of course, don’t want it to get that close. We’re targeting 2018.”

The city is watching what happens in Washington with the budget, and availability of money or greater federal participation could affect plans.

Joan Davis, president of the Sandbridge Beach Civic League, said representatives from the city will speak to the community during its meeting at 7 p.m., Monday, April 17, at Sandbridge Chapel United Methodist Church, 3041 Sandpiper Road.

Davis said the neighborhood relies upon the city to assist the community before putting dedicated money to use.

“The city’s been a great partner helping us,” Davis said. “The biggest thing is just seeing if we’re going to be able to get some funding from the Army Corps of Engineers.”

Eugene Pawlik, a spokesperson for the Army Corps of Engineers in Washington, D.C., said in an interview that normally administrations put forward a proposed budget in February, though there are not specific details for the current proposal. 

“We’re told that will come in mid-May,” he said.

Budgets change during the appropriations process, so Trump’s proposed cuts are not necessarily what will be enacted. The federal budget passed in 2015 was the first full budget approved in several years, according to The Washington Times

Paying government bills in the past year has been done through resolutions that essentially keep agencies funded at prior levels.

Mark Haviland, a spokesperson for the Army Corps of Engineers district office in Norfolk, said officials pay attention to the proposed budget as well as the steps that follow to determine resources.

“Clearly, it’s not set in stone until that budget process runs its course,” he said.

Media representatives for the Trump administration’s Office of Management and Budget did not respond to a request for comment made on Wednesday, March 22.

The American Shore & Beach Preservation Association, a group that advocates for coastal protection, maintains a database of nourishment projects. Roehrs is one of its vice presidents. The database numbers for Sandbridge show the Ash Wednesday project in 1962, then a gap.

A 1990 report funded, in part, by a federal grant mainly examined the impact of bulkheads at Sandbridge, but noted this about the likelihood of beach protection: 

“The only reasonable course of action will be a beach nourishment program. This would provide and maintain a protective and recreational beach but would be expensive and ongoing.”

In 1998, the city funded a $7.4 million project due to the severity of erosion and following discussion of such options — and following storms that ravaged the beach and destroyed a number of homes.

“Houses were washing into the ocean,” Roehrs said, speaking of a period during the 1990s. “Bulkheads were failing. … The cost of doing nothing was more than doing that.”

Said Henley, “Sandbridge wouldn’t be there if we hadn’t done the project.”

Since the agreement with the corps was signed in 2002, there have been a few Sandbridge projects. In 2003 and 2007, the federal government and Virginia Beach shared the $9.5 million and $10.2 million respective bills, though Roehrs said the city ultimately paid for much of the latter project due to the size of the federal appropriation. Then came the 2013 project when local money paid nearly the entire cost. 

When the next project happens in Sandbridge, the city would want the corps to be involved as a partner due to regulatory and project capabilities they bring to the table.

“That would be possible,” said Richard Klein, civil works program manager with the Army Corps of Engineers district office in Norfolk. “We would do it the same way we did it five years ago.” 

“The real kicker the last time we did it was that we really needed the corps to be the manager,” Henley said.

Henley, among others, noted that Sandbridge is in a better position that some other communities due to the dedicated funding stream. “The Sandbridge people are paying their money,” Henley said.

And it’s about time for more sand to go on the beach at Sandbridge. 

“I don’t think we can give it any more time,” Henley said.

People enjoy the beach at Sandbridge over a recent March weekend. City officials hope to begin a sand replenishment project in 2018, but there is uncertainty about whether federal funding will help pay for it or whether local dollars alone will again be used to restore the beach. [John-Henry Doucette/The Princess Anne Independent News]


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