The Cape Charles Wetlands and Dune board held an informational meeting with the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) in order to provide the public with an update on the status of the channel dredging and beach replenishment project. The contract for this final phase has been awarded, and USACE will be in contract negotiations with the contractor as early as next week. This last phase of the project was designed to use dredging material to fill in gaps at the north end of the beach between Jefferson and Madison Avenues.
The original design called for 100,000 cubic yards of sand to be used to fill in the beach; however, that amount has been lowered to only 30,000, with the rest being taken to the upland spoil site. But 30,000 cubic yards, according to USACE engineers will not be enough to fill in the parabola between Jefferson and Madison, and will leave the project 55 feet short of the intended goal; this will also leave that end of the beach vulnerable to the severe erosion caused by coastal disturbances such as nor’easters. The monetary value of the sand being sent to the upland site is close to $840,000.00 (based on the cost per cubic yard to haul sand by truck, which is between $12 and $18 per cubic yard).
Also, by refusing the full amount of sand, the upland spoil site could not handle the capacity (maybe 118,000 cubic yards), the channel width will have to be reduced from 300 feet to 200 feet (still an 18 foot depth).
“Since the town said we did not need another 130,000 cubic yards, they didn’t listen to us, we had to go to Lynwood Lewis, went to Scott Rigell, he a phone conversation and meeting with the Corps, to ‘get them to listen to us’, and they did listen to us. And this is what they came with, the 30,000 cubic yards…because there is only 100,000 cubic yard capacity left in the upland site, they are short about 60,000 cubic yards, to compensate for that, they are going to narrow the channel from 300 feet to 200 feet….” Councilman Steve Bennett, at June 16 Town Council Meeting.
Note: The channel has not been dredged since 1989, and the only reason it is being dredged now is that after hurricane Sandy, the Norfolk office of the Corps of Engineers noticed some shoaling, and was able to leverage this event to obtain disaster relief funds to negotiate the project. With the new breakwaters, which will reduce much of the wave action, most of us will not see another dredging of the Cape Charles Harbor in our lifetimes. Supposedly worried about blowing sand getting into people’s yards, Council has made the dubious decision to make the channel narrower, only 200 feet instead of the designed 300 feet. Sources tell the Mirror that Bayshore Concrete, which depends on the channel, was furious when they found out about the Mayor and Council’s decision.
During the meeting, this reporter asked the USACE representative what was the rationale for not distributing the full amount of sand. USACE responded that they had designed it to use 100,000, but the town came back and requested that the amount be lowered to 30,000 cubic yards:
Mirror: So, who made this decision? Who signed off on this?
Mirror: Who made that decision? Was it the Corps? Was it Council? Steve (Bennett), was it you (town council)?
Bennett: (quietly) Yes.
Russ Dunton (Wetlands Board): We just found out about this two weeks ago.
Mirror: Why? What was the reasoning? What was the rationale?
Andy Buchholz: It was because of timing…not to have this going on while people are on the beach.
Mirror: What? People on the beach? Who cares? I don’t understand….that end of the beach, Russ you know what happens to it when it gets hammered by storms (Dunton had earlier remarked that they needed so much sand at that end of the beach due to the severe erosion, which at one time almost took out the north end of the boardwalk, and threatened Bay Avenue).
USACE member: We really think having the full amount of sand at that part of the beach would be very beneficial to the town.
Mirror: So, you’re saying, it’s your opinion we should be putting down the full 100,000?
Sensing, too late, that a public relations issue may be brewing, Mayor George Proto and Joan Natali exited the room, conferred, and then came back in. The Mayor finally addressed the room:
Mayor: We looked at this…we wanted to find a way to minimize…that much sand, we felt it would be too much and would blow around; it would create, or misshape that end of the beach….we wanted to address the concerns of different groups.”
What model the Mayor and Council used to override the engineers at USACE (who have well over 25 years of experience doing this) was not mentioned. Does anyone working for the town really have enough of an engineering background to produce a reasonable alternative to the Corp’s design?
Interestingly, Councilman Buchholz’s earlier assertion that timing (inconvenience to tourists) was the reason for scaling back the project and forgoing close to a million dollars’ worth of sand (free), seemed to lend more weight to the Mayor’s more palatable narrative. This narrative was reinforced by Bay Haven Inn owner Tammy Holloway who was speaking for herself and on behalf of other B&B owners when she voiced concerns that the dredging and 2 weeks of beach replenishment could be an inconvenience for tourists. “This could undo all the progress we have made…we could get a bad review on our website.”
After the June 15th meeting, the Mirror was notified by a citizen that Andrew Follmer and the Cape Charles Business Association had circulated an email which claimed that if the beach replenishment took place for two weeks during the summer (mid to late August), it would be ‘devastating’. Sources also tell the Mirror that members of the CCBA have been in contact with the Mayor and members of Council regarding the cancellation of the beach replenishment portion of the project.
The question remains: why is the Mayer and Council so willing to risk the long term health of our economic engines, our only real assets, just to avoid the minor inconvenience to a few people at the beach, as well as some sand blowing into a few yards? Most people would surely understand the need to maintain and nourish the beach.
Wetlands Board Blindsided by Town Council
On June 1, 2016, the Wetlands and Dune Board was scheduled to meet to discuss the USACE dredging project. The packets sent out contained the current plans for the project, which clearly showed that 100,000 cubic yards of sand was planned for the north end of the beach. Also at the meeting was Hank Badger of the VMRC. Before the meeting began, a member of the board mentioned to Badger that the 100,000 cubic yards would really solve many of the problems occurring at the north end of the beach (erosion, pooling water, etc.). Badger replied that he understood that there were several other options on the table that would scale it down. When the board member questioned Mr. Badger about ‘what other options’, he referred him to an email from the Corps of Engineers that he had been CC’d on. See email below:
From: Anderson, Michael L NAO [mailto:Michael.L.Anderson@
Sent: Tuesday, May 31, 2016 9:22 AM
To: Larry DiRe; firstname.lastname@example.org
Cc: Waring, Elizabeth G NAO; Amos, Jeannine L NAO; Gray, Willie (Hunter) H NAO; ‘Mayor Proto’; Steele, Gregory C NAO; Darrow, Michael R. NAO; Kelly, Jason E COL NAO
Subject: RE: Cape Charles SANDY Dredging Project – Way Forward Discussion
Good Morning Larry and Brent,
This is a follow-up to our teleconference and meetings that occurred last Thursday and Friday, 26 and 27 May 2016, respectively. It is understood that the Town Leadership needed additional time to weigh the dredging, navigation, and dredged material placement options presented last week to gain consensus on a decision. We are now at that point that a decision is required to not delay the Contractor further or place the Government in a position to be subject to Contractor standby time.
At your earliest opportunity, please email or call me to discuss the path forward.
General Options discussed last week:
1. Current Scope in the Contract: 100,000 CY of Sand on the North Beach; 100,000 CY of Sand in the Upland Site (channel dredged to maintained width and depth (300 feet wide and 18 feet deep)
2. Reduced Scope in the Contract: 30,000 CY of Sand on the North Beach; up to 125,000 CY of Sand in the Upland Site (reduced navigation, channel segment in contract dredged between 200 and 300 feet wide, 18 feet deep)
3. Reduced Scope in the Contract: No Sand on the North Beach; up to 125,000 CY of Sand in the Upland Site (reduced navigation, channel segment in contract dredged between about 150 and 300 feet wide, and 18 feet deep)
4. Terminate the Contract: No Sand, No further Dredging or Navigation
Michael L.Anderson, P.E.
Chief, Design Section Operations Branch
Water Resources Division, Norfolk District
During the meeting, the Wetlands Board questioned Planner Larry DiRe about whether there were actually alternatives to the plans they had in their packet. DiRe responded that there were in fact other options on the table. The Board was confused by this; why were they there to approve a project that may or may not take place, or take place with a different set of specifications? The Board asked DiRe who, or when these alternatives were being discussed, but he could not answer. Then at the June 15th meeting, when the Corps announced that there was only going to be 30,000 cubic yards placed on the beach, the Wetlands Board, who had called the meeting, was taken aback by the news. According to one member, “The first time I heard about a final decision to put down only the 30,000 was at the meeting on the 15th.” It soon became apparent that the Mayor and Town Council had met in private and made the decision to scale back the project, by-passing the Wetlands Board completely. They also did not even bother to alert them to the changes. While towns are required to maintain boards, such as the Wetland board, they are not required to use them for meaningful policy endeavors. Even still, why would Council not extend the courtesy of letting the board know about its decision before they were set to meet with the Corps?
In a conversation with Councilman Frank Wendell, the Mayor, Council members Bennett, Bannon and Natali wanted to abandon the dredging and beach replenishment altogether. According to Wendell, they felt they could cancel this phase of the project, and then just apply for the same amount of money next year. Wendell and fellow councilman Sambo Brown, however, fought to keep the project as scheduled, along with getting at least the 30,000 cubic yards on the north end of the beach. They argued that given the relatively small amount of monies available for dredging, and how competitive it was to get them, they needed to move forward with the project as USACE had it scheduled.
The Bay Creek Connection
“I witnessed a lot of blowing sand this winter. I had concerns about placing another 100,000 on the beach. We thought we could take the 30,000, and take the other 130,000 and put it on the Bay Creek beach, which needs the sand desperately. There were reasons they said they couldn’t do that…” – Steve Bennett at June 16 Town Council Meeting.
Why this is interesting is that the original dredging plan was to replenish the eroding Bay Creek (southern beaches) with between 100,000 to 200,000 cubic yards of sand. That plan was nixed however, due to the tiger beetle habitat, as well as protests from private clamming operations at Plantation Creek. During the fall of last year, things began to change; VMRC was loosening up on the tiger beetle habitat, allowing beach clearing operations to occur. Sources close to that project also tell the Mirror that the possibility of replenishing portions of the southern beach may also soon be on the table. The problem is that, the 130,000 or so cubic yards of sand was earmarked for the north end of the public beach, not Bay Creek. Sources close to Council tell the Mirror push back on the USACE project began this winter. While Steve Bennett blamed the Corps for the delay:
“The delay is not due to the Town, it is due to the Corps; this is typically not dredging season; I was concerned about what they were doing,” – Steve Bennett.
the Mayor and Town Council also had a good bit to do with it–the mood of the email from USACE is clearly laced with frustration with the Town’s procrastination. By pushing the process into the tourist season, the town could leverage the angst of the business community to justify the decision to cancel the project. As was mentioned earlier, during a work session, canceling the project was vigorously discussed. Timing is everything; by canceling the dredging for one year, there was a sliver of hope they could get the proper permits and then dump all the sand on the Bay Creek beach (which needs at least 200,000 cubic yards or more).
Note: With three members of Council now from Bay Creek, that scenario certainly must have seemed more plausible. At the June 15th meeting, USACE representatives noted that, while permitting could take some time, southern beach replenishment was not entirely out of the question.
In a private conversation with sources close to Council, it was brought up that a possible scenario was that since Wendell was a lame duck, he would not even show up for the work session, and they could cancel the project with little or no objection. As bad luck would have it, Wendell did show up, and fought for at least the 30,000. In what appears to be a final, vindictive act of disrespect towards Wendell, they refused to put the full 100,000 cubic yards on the homeboy’s beach, even if it meant narrowing the channel from 300 to 200 feet.
The Town also tried to use political pressure to get its way, “they (the Corps) didn’t listen to us, we had to go to Lynwood Lewis, went to Scott Rigell, he a phone conversation and meeting with the Corps, to get them to listen to us”, -Steve Bennett at June 16th Council Meeting.
To the Corps credit, their main focus was to dredge the channel, with or without political pressure—if the town only wanted a 200 ft channel, so be it.
It just seems inconceivable that we would not be widening the channel and expanding the beach as much as possible (at no charge to the town taxpayers). Private conversations with members of the Wetlands Board, as well as other engineers, leads us to believe that the Town needs to put at least another 150 ,000 to 200,000 cubic yards on the north end of the beach between Jefferson and Madison, as well as filling in the low, pooling areas from Madison to Monroe. With that, of course comes the responsibility of managing the beach and dunes, which the Town so far has not even attempted to do. The Wetlands Board has been tasked with coming up some form of management plan, but whether the Town Council will use it is another story. It is important to remember that the sand and dunes belong to the Town; we adjust, trim and maintain it when, how and where we feel fit.
We keep coming back to the same question: what is the rationale? Maybe the real question is what is the real agenda? Who is really benefiting? The fact that the policy making process seems narrowly focused on a few niche communities and individuals that apparently have elevated and prioritized access to the decision makers in Cape Charles, raises several red flags, and certainly warrants closer investigation.