2007-07-20 / Columnists

The Rockaway Irregular

Dune Wars
Commentary by Stuart W. Mirsky

I hate the beach. That's quite an admission from someone who's lived most of his life roughly a block and a half from the ocean. But there it is. I dislike the sand and the baking sun and the crowds of swimmers and sunbathers and all that noise, and I especially hate swimming through the waves, the salt water stinging my eyes, the surf pounding my chest. I know this is tantamount to heresy here in Rockaway, but I cherish the idea that there are others on the peninsula like me, secret beach haters who just happen to live here for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with the shore.

After all, there are other advantages to living in Rockaway - or there used to be. I've always enjoyed the relatively low population density and lack of traffic congestion that once characterized our little spit of land. And the air's pretty fresh, too. Of course you have to endure a lengthy and sometimes brutal commute if you work in the city but, having retired a few years ago, that's no longer a factor for me. I make it a point to go into the city as little as possible these days though, on rare occasions, it's still unavoidable. (When Bloomberg starts charging us to drive in, though, I expect it will become a lot more avoidable.)

Despite my antipathy for sea, salt and sand, however, I do have something of an affinity for natural vistas and undeveloped land and you can still find some of that over in Ft. Tilden (if you're careful about avoiding the ticks). And the beach, in winter, is still a pretty nice place to be, appropriately deserted except for the hearty gulls and a few runners and some dogs. Not long ago a neighbor and friend approached me about a problem with the beach. "What's wrong?" I asked him, since he said he was keen on getting me to write something about the beach in my column.

"There's nothing left," he said in despair. "It's all gone. Have you seen the beach lately? We need the Army Corps of Engineers or someone to pump in new sand before there's really nothing left."

Well, I had to admit I hadn't been to the beach since winter and I asked him if his problem wasn't really the dunes? On a number of blocks, including mine, the City Parks Department, with the support and urging of some beachfront homeowners, had previously set up and nurtured a series of manmade dunes. They did it by fencing off mounds of sand and allowing these to expand and develop beach vegetation. Quite a furor erupted over this and recent correspondence in The Wave indicates a lawsuit's been joined by some local residents, the dune lovers vs. the dune haters.

As near as I can tell, the issue is that the dunes have grown and thereby taken up more and more beach space, shrinking the area available for beachgoers. Other complaints about them include the fact that they're unsightly (they do have a wild look to them), that they conceal debris which can be harmful and that they attract nesting piping plovers, an endangered avian species which, once reinstalled on our beaches, have rights that supersede those of human beings. If the piping plovers are there, we can't be.

On the positive side, since the dunes block off part of the beach for human use, they increase the privacy of beachfront homeowners (who have suffered, in the past, from hooligans and wild partygoers, sometimes extending into the night). Another good thing the dunes have done, as I've noticed on my street, is protect us from the sand drifts which used to periodically inundate the southern end of our beach blocks. None of this affects me directly since I happen to live a block and a half away, but it seems to have sparked quite a little feud among some of our neighbors. So I asked my neighbor if it's the dunes that were bothering him. "No," he answered after a moment's thought. "It's just that we're losing our beach to the sea. There's nothing left."

So the other day, about five in the morning (the best time for this!), I took a walk down to the beach and hiked over to Beach 116 Street.

Aside from the apparently still growing dune areas, the rest of the beach looked pretty much the way it always had to me. Perhaps it was just low tide, but the beach seemed pretty substantial to my non-beach-loving eyes. No different than what I remember from years ago. Fewer interesting shells or rocks or driftwood I noticed, but that may just mean it's being kept cleaner than in the past. I found myself wondering what my neighbor was all upset about.

On the way back, as I approached the dune areas again, I realized that that had to be it. The dunes had clearly become massive mountains of sand and weeds, encroaching on nearby usable beach area. I could see how, during high tide, there really might not be much beach left. Didn't bother me, of course, but it sure would bother those who enjoyed their summer frolics alongside the ocean's rolling waves.

Back when I was still deciding whether to run for local political office (ancient history now), someone had come round to my house with a petition to get rid of the dunes and asked me to sign. I remember talking to the guy and asking why he wanted the dunes removed and he gave me all the usual reasons: unsightly, dangerous, took up too much space, made access to the beach harder, etc. While he was talking I kept thinking about Hurricane Katrina, and those now infamous failed New Orleans levees. What if we got a big storm like that up here, I wondered? The hurricane cycle seemed to be getting worse and there's this Global Warming thing. Not living near the beach, I didn't benefit from the presence of the dunes and not liking the beach, I didn't suffer from their presence so I seemed to have no dog in the fight.

Of course, when they'd first put the dunes in, I had a knee jerk reaction and opposed it. Why? Because I like things as they are and it annoyed me that the Parks Department had elected to change the beach's configuration. When I learned they had done this at the instigation of some local beachfront homeowners, I was really ticked off. So I had a sudden urge to sign the guy's petition and even to make the dunes an issue in my upcoming campaign. But then I thought about Katrina again. Bush won't be around to blame forever! Someday we might have to face a hurricane with no one to blame but ourselves. And then wouldn't it be better to have the ocean's tides obstructed by some rather tall sandy hills instead of allowing them to sweep unimpeded through our streets?

In 1959, just before my family first moved out here, there was a major hurricane when the ocean and the bay rose up and met in the middle of the peninsula. In the mid-nineties we had a Nor'easter and were flooded across the peninsula again. Driving to work on Newport Avenue, my car was flooded out and I had to wade home in waistdeep water. It may be that, given a big enough storm, nothing can protect us. But there are some storms that a few good dunes can probably repel, so why not plan for those?

In the end it's a matter of balancing competing interests, of course: the beachgoers vs. the beachfront homeowners. But we're all together on this peninsula and who are we going to blame when we get a Katrina-level storm up here, as we must eventually? If we take the dunes down, won't it be like leaving parts of New Orleans with undersized levees? Maybe, instead of fighting to maximize usable beach area for our annual rites of summer, we should be putting a few more dunes in place to ensure that Rockaway remains a peninsula instead of reverting to the barren sandbar it once was? rockirreg@aol.com

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