2006-06-09 / Editorial/Opinion

From the Editor's Desk

By Howard Schwach

In order to get from the entrance to the beach, small boardwalks are built over the dunes to the open beach all along the beaches in the OBX.
In order to get from the entrance to the beach, small boardwalks are built over the dunes to the open beach all along the beaches in the OBX. Only in Rockaway does the word "dune" evoke fear and hatred.

Everywhere else in the civilized world (with the exception, perhaps of Long Beach), dunes are items of beauty, to be revered and maintained.

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation thinks they are better than white bread.

"Dunes, along with bluffs and beaches, buffer shorelands from the energy of open water," the state agency's "Coastal Erosion Management" document says. "Dunes are of greatest protective value during conditions of storm-induced high water. Their value as protective features is especially great. The two primary functions of dunes are prevention of wave overtopping and storage of sand for coastal processes. High, vegetated dunes provide a greater degree of protection than low, unvegitated ones. The keys to maintaining a stable dune structure are the establishment and maintenance of beachgrass or other vegetation on the dunes and the assurance of a supply or nourishment to the dunes."

Dunes can be found along the entire Outer Banks in North Carolina. It is a federal offense to even walk on a dune in most of the United States.
Dunes can be found along the entire Outer Banks in North Carolina. It is a federal offense to even walk on a dune in most of the United States. Some Rockaway residents, however, do not like the west end dunes very much. They want them bulldozed, destroyed, taken down, annihilated.

Witness a recent media presentation the group presented to Parks Department officials and local politicians after the beach opening ceremony two weeks ago.

The dunes in question are the "official dunes" that were created by the Parks Department several years ago. Those dunes were paid for by a group of residents who thought that they would be a good idea (and still do).

The "concerned group of citizens" who want the dunes destroyed once and for all say that they have become a safety and sanitary problem.

"It is noted that the [dune] areas contain debris that could cause serious health issues for those that walk or play behind the dunes," their report says. "The area contained large fecal matter that could cause disease for any child that would encounter this while playing behind the dunes."

It also argues that the dunes draw bugs and mosquitoes, rats carrying such dire diseases as HPS, typhus, salmonella and meningitis and God knows what else.

They mention the piping plover once again. When the dunes were first built, opponents claimed that the dunes would draw the little protected birds and they would lose their beaches. That has not happened, so they had to bring on the bugs, mosquitoes and deadly rats as well as the little plovers.

They also argue that the "visual view of the beach area will seriously hinder or delay any type of emergency medical or water rescue command whose command post would be set up on the beach wall," as well as "create a safe haven for those who wish to be hidden from view." They argue that under cover of the dunes, teenagers smoke and drink. If they think that teenagers did not smoke or drink on the beach prior to the dunes, or in areas where there are no dunes, then they have to get out more.

There is one major issue where they do have a point, in my opinion, and that is beach access.

On Beach 139 Street, a five-foot high dune blocks access to the beach. That cannot be allowed. Many venues remediate a similar problem by building a boardwalk from the street, over the dune, to the open beach (see picture of the Outer Banks). Perhaps a path could be cut from the street to the open beach, cutting the dune in half.

Access is not a problem on the other beaches, where the dunes have developed differently.

I visited the area and walked the beaches in question in the last days of May.

As a matter of fairness and full disclosure, I have to tell you that I think dunes are fantastic and I believe that they should be allowed to spread from Beach 3 Street to Breezy Point.

I went to the Outer Banks of North Carolina last summer, where miles and miles of beaches with dunes is one of the attractions.

I have been to the Cape Cod National Seashore a few times. Miles and miles of dunes protect that barrier island.

In either of those venues, anybody who even walks on a dune is prosecuted and fined.

Dunes are sacrosanct.

I wanted to see the west end dunes for myself and I wanted to look at them with an unjaundiced eye,

There were no rats, no mosquitoes that I noticed, no fecal material, no piping plovers. The dunes were stately and beautiful in their simplicity - sand and grass.

I do agree with the Beach 139 Street homeowners that their beach access needs to be restored even though their disingenuous claim that the dunes make the beach unusable to "83 percent" of the local residents is laughable.

First of all, the Parks Department cannot destroy the dunes without permission from the State DEC. That is clear from the regulations.

Under its own guidelines, I would think that the most the agency would allow the city to do would be to groom the existing dunes to provide beach access on all the impacted streets.

Were the dunes placed on the beach illegally?

As with many things done in this city, it depends on who you talk to.

At the time, there was an organization called the "Parks Foundation," a private foundation that people could contribute to if they wanted to donate money to the city's parks.

The money to build the dunes was "donated" to the Parks Foundation with the express purpose of placing dunes as a test on west end beaches. The dunes were built.

Was that "illegal?" Was it unethical? That all depends.

In any case, the dunes have been in place for nine years, growing by leaps and bounds, as natural dunes will do (if they're left alone by the Parks Department).

On the day the beaches officially opened (Friday, May 26) the "concerned citizens" hijacked Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe, local parks officials, Assemblywoman Audrey Pheffer, City Councilman Joe Addabbo and Community Board 14 District Manager Jon Gaska and took them to see the dune on Beach 139 Street.

All of the above were horrified by the lack of access on that block and gave their support to the group to do something to reopen their beach.

I hope, however that it can be done without destroying the other dunes or by drawing the community into a protracted battle over whether they are valuable or not.

The fact is, Hurricane Katrina proved once again that dunes do the job for which nature designed them.

I feel badly for people who lose some beach or lose their sightlines to the water.

That, however, is a small price to pay for the jobs that the dunes do each day.

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