Assateague Alternative Approach Worries Ocean City

OCEAN CITY — At least one alternative in Assateague Island National Seashore’s draft General Management Plan (GMP) calls for allowing the barrier island to eventually return to its natural, primitive state, an option that has caught the attention of Ocean City officials.

The Department of the Interior is currently considering several options for its GMP for Assateague Island National Seashore as the barrier island prepares to deal with predicted climate change, sea level rise and increased coastal storms. One option is to simply maintain the status quo, while other alternatives include moving infrastructure out of harm’s way and gradually reducing the man-made facilities’ footprints on the island, an option that is already being implemented to some degree.

However, the rather ominous Alternative 3 calls for allowing the Maryland portion of the Assateague Island National Seashore to gradually shift back to its natural primitive state with little or no public investment in man-made infrastructure in the future as facilities are eventually wiped out by storms or sea level rise. Of course, that potential could be decades away, but the rather draconian Alternative 3 has caught the attention of Ocean City officials, particularly over concern about the future of the stone jetty on the north end of the island that supports the Ocean City Inlet.

Ocean City Planning and Community Development Director Bill Neville broached the subject during this week’s Coastal Resources Legislative Committee, or “Green Team,” meeting this week. Neville told committee members the public comment period on the various alternatives is now open and suggested it would be appropriate for Ocean City to weigh in.

Neville explained the sand behind the Inlet jetties eroded during the Nor’easter in early October, exposing the back side of the rock jetties on either side of the Inlet. While the sand eventually filled back in through natural processes, the storm erosion did raise concerns about the future stability of the jetties on either side of the Inlet. With at least one alternative in Assateague’s GMP calling for letting nature take its course, Neville said the town should be keeping a close eye on the progress of the proposed options.

“I really think Ocean City needs to weigh in on the public comment period,” he said. “It’s a very long process and that alternative is the most extreme, but the Ocean City Inlet is the most important part on our end. We’re really only one storm away from the Inlet giving way.”

Neville told “Green Team” members while Alternative 3 is extreme it bears close attention from the resort.

“The Department of the Interior is pushing for letting natural processes run their course,” he said. “I think we need to keep an eye on this and make sure the plan includes a partnership with the Army Corps of Engineers to manage at least that north end of the island by the Inlet.”

After some debate, the Green Team decided it would be appropriate to weigh in on the public comment period, given the potential issues involving the Inlet. The committee further agreed to reach out to Assateague Island National Seashore Superintendent Debbie Darden to make a presentation to the Mayor and Council at a future work session outlining the proposed alternatives.

A closer look at Alternative 3 reveals a pretty ominous future for the Maryland portion of the barrier island. Although Alternative 3 is likely a long shot, some components paint a very different future for the island.

“Natural evolution of the island would occur without interference and subject to the full effects of natural coastal processes and climate change and sea level rise,” Alternative 3 reads. “Future breaches and other island changes throughout the Maryland portion of the seashore would be allowed to evolve naturally. Existing visitor use facilities and infrastructure would remain in the Maryland developed visitor area until such time as they are lost or damaged by coastal processes or become obsolete.”

Under Alternative 3, the Maryland end of Assateague could become a remote location in the future.

“Ultimately, visitor use facilities would support only day-use recreation,” the alternative reads. “If existing roadways and parking facilities are lost or damaged, they would not be repaired, replaced or relocated. Instead, a mainland-based commercial shuttle would provide access. Should the bridges to the island be damaged or fail, access to the island would shift to a fully water-based system composed of new passenger ferry and water-based access operating from existing public access sites on the mainland.”

The alternative calls for limited or non-existent investment in man-made structures on the island in the future.

“In response to the threat from climate change and sea level rise, minimal future investments would be made on the Maryland portion of the island, limited to the development and maintenance of sustainable, low-impact day-use facilities and primitive camping infrastructure,” the alternative reads.

About The Author: Shawn Soper

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Shawn Soper has been with The Dispatch since 2000. He began as a staff writer covering various local government beats and general stories. His current positions include managing editor and sports editor. Growing up in Baltimore before moving to Ocean City full time three decades ago, Soper graduated from Loch Raven High School in 1981 and from Towson University in 1985 with degrees in mass communications with a journalism concentration and history.