Government must protect Prime Hook

January 11, 2013

Your editorial “Public access required when public funds coastal repairs” was on the mark.  The idea of “private beaches” and property owners benefiting from publicly-financed coastal protection and management practices like beach replenishment whether on bay or ocean shorelines where public access is forbidden should be relegated to the museum of archaic public policy artifacts - the sooner the better.

Offshore sand is a public resource which moves up and down coasts with or without publicly-financed replenishment.  It observes no boundaries or private ownership. It’s nature’s gift to all the people.

Gifts though, often come with a price tag as in Gov. Jack Markell’s request for $20 million to repair and rebuild destroyed dunes and Sandy-exacerbated severe shoreline erosion on undeveloped land almost entirely owned by the federal government and just north of the Prime Hook Beach community.

This funding is to address two different but inextricably linked issues. It will provide for public health and safety protection and mitigate ongoing property damage from flooding to three communities and several farms as well as state-owned infrastructure. It will additionally allow the Fish & Wildlife Service to begin its important effort to restore healthy and sustainable marsh habitats in the Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge where there are now only open and ever-spreading tidal waters.

Some have taken exception to the governor’s common sense objective to protect people, property, and valuable wetlands and habitats - surely purposes for which we have government.  A good example is a local radio talk show host recently who called this a “bailout” only benefiting a “private beach” community - Prime Hook Beach,  and that taxpayers should not have to foot the bill.

There are those, including elected officials from other parts of the country, who likewise espouse the position that government has no business helping a community in distress from any disasters - unless, of course, it’s their constituents who are doing the suffering.

Simplistic sound-bites may readily resonate, but more often than not they just muddle reality and limit understanding. In the case of Prime Hook Beach, under the 1978 Beach Preservation Act, this then tiny community was defined as a private beach because its beachfront owners early on never signed easements specified in the law that would allow the state to replenish beaches and assure free access by the public to such beaches.

Other bay beach communities eventually did so, a few only within the last few years.  It is this legal legacy that now acts as a barrier to beach and dune replenishment within the community, but it has absolutely nothing to do with the Fix the Breaches - Stop the Flooding - Save the Bayshore Habitat project the governor and the Fish & Wildlife Service want to conduct.

The fact is that the overwhelming majority of residents and property owners in the Prime Hook Beach community have been seeking “public beach” status designation from the state well before Sandy. That formal process is ongoing.

In the meantime, anyone may take Prime Hook Road off the Coastal Highway through the Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge into the Prime Hook Beach community. There are 10 public rights-of-way to the beach itself though not formally marked as such. Take a look, walk the beach.

And, as is true of the other bay communities, the beach you will find is not the grand expanse of sand with lifeguards and parking and services that one sees and expects at the ocean beaches. Rather, it is a much more intimate place, one that provides vital habitat for a rich diversity of shorebirds, turtles, marine worms, horseshoe crabs, and countless other creatures of the Delaware Bay Estuary.

This wildlife and the environment it inhabits constitute the very foundation for Delaware’s Bayshore Initiative. It merits and requires any and all the protective action the government is seeking to fund - no more, no less.

Richard S. Allan
Prime Hook Beach

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