Ocean City Says No To Beach Replenishment Funding For Inlet Study

Ocean City Says No To Beach Replenishment Funding For Inlet Study
Ocean City officials this week did not endorse a proposal to use a portion of the beach replenishment fund for its share of an Army Corps’ Inlet study. Pictured above, a lone commercial vessel makes its way through the Inlet this week. Photo by Chris Parypa

OCEAN CITY – The Army Corps of Engineers (ACE) feasibility study for a long-time fix to the chronic shoaling problems in the Inlet might still be funded, but the local share won’t come from the Ocean City beach replenishment fund.

The Inlet and other channels in and around the commercial harbor naturally fill in and are in constant need of maintenance dredging, but the problem has become more acute in recent years to the point the Inlet is often impassable and unnavigable for larger vessels on even the highest of tides. While maintenance dredging continues, including a project expected to begin next week, local, state and federal officials have been exploring a long-term solution including dredging the Inlet channel to a greater depth and possibly even a reconfiguration of the jetties or a relocation of the channel.

The Inlet is the Army Corps’ responsibility and the federal agency has shown a willingness to be part of the solution. However, before any major changes take place in the Inlet, the ACE wants to conduct a feasibility study to chart a course for action. The study is a necessary first step and is essentially a requirement before the federal government invests potentially millions of dollars into a long-term fix.

The Army Corps’ study is expected to cost $1.2 million, of which the federal government would fund half, or $600,000. The remaining $600,000 would be funded by a combination of state and local sources including 50 percent, or $300,000 from the state and 25 percent each, or $150,000 each from Worcester County and the Town of Ocean City.

The formula is virtually the same as the funding split for the decades-old Ocean City beach replenishment project. In fact, a proposal was on the table this week to fund the local share from reserves in the Ocean City beach replenishment fund. Ocean City’s beaches were replenished last fall as part of the typical four-year cycle and the project came in under budget. As a result, there is reserve funding in the beach replenishment budget and the proposal on the table is to tap some of that money to fund the local share of the Army Corps’ study of the Inlet problems.

However, utilizing any portion of the beach replenishment funding for projects other than the beach or dune network would require a change in state law. On Tuesday, the Ocean City Mayor and Council heard a proposal to tap the beach replenishment fund for the local share of the Inlet study. Essentially, they were asked to sign off on enabling legislation that would allow the beach replenishment funds to be used for that purpose.

Under the language of the proposed legislation, the state’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the Worcester County Commissioners and the Ocean City Mayor and Council would have to approve any use of beach replenishment funding for purposes other than renourishing the resort’s beaches. City Engineer Terry McGean told the elected officials the Inlet issues have risen to the point it is often impassable, particularly for some of the larger commercial fishing vessels that operate out of the West Ocean City harbor.

“Right now, we’re treating the symptoms but we’re not curing the disease,” he said. We simply can’t dredge enough to keep up with it.”

At first, the Mayor and Council appeared to be supportive of the proposal to push for the legislative change, but the conversation quickly reversed to the use of beach replenishment funds, essentially the sacred cow for Ocean City, for other purposes. The conversation also swung around to the perceived disparity in the funding formula for Ocean City and Worcester County for the Inlet problems, which they collectively agreed was mostly a county problem.

When asked what the $1.2 million Army Corps study would hope to accomplish when the Inlet problems appear on the surface to be fairly obvious, McGean told the Mayor and Council the study would take a deep dive so to speak into all of the possible contributing factors.

“They essentially do a lot of computer modeling with the Inlet,” he said. “They look to see if there are ways the jetty can be refigured, for example. There are a million theories out there. For every commercial fisherman, we have a different theory for what’s causing it.”

McGean said the Army Corps study was a logical next step in what has been a lengthy process and its completion was tied to possible federal funding for a long-term solution.

“In order for the Army Corps to go in there, they won’t make those kinds of changes without a study,” he said. “Whether its reconfiguring the jetty, changing where the channel goes or any number of solutions, this is really looking at some sort of permanent solution so we’re not going out there every two months and digging it out again.”

When asked if utilizing the beach replenishment money to fund the local share of the study would result in more needed funding, McGean said it would not, but there were a couple of caveats.

“At this point, no,” he said. “At this point, the money is in there from the savings of the most recent project. It would not require any additional increases to the fund at this time.”

The Mayor and Council essentially supported the concept of the Inlet study, but were reluctant to tap into the coveted beach replenishment funds to do so. There is a possibility Ocean City could contribute its share of the study funding without tapping into beach replenishment money. Councilman Dennis Dare said that option could be explored, but said the beach replenishment money should remain off limits.

“Every dollar taken out of the beach replenishment fund is going to have to be replaced in the future,” he said. “It isn’t left over money. If we take money out of beach replenishment, it’s going to have to be replaced next year or the year after.”

Dare pointed to the years of cajoling state and federal partners to get the beach replenishment project approved and in action in the first place.

“The work we went through to get this funding and this arrangement was extensive,” he said. “It took years and a lot of political capital to be able to do that. I’m very hesitant to rob Peter to pay Paul. It’s a very worthy project, but maybe it needs to stand on its own.”

Dare said he was reluctant to open the door for utilizing beach replenishment funding for anything other than its intended purpose.

“We have something that works here,” he said. “I’m just afraid once we crack that seal, things are going to start running out of it and we’ll jeopardize a project that has a 50-year contract.”

McGean explained the Inlet is currently authorized to be dredged to a depth of 10 feet with a two-foot allowance for leeway. The proposal is to eventually dredge the Inlet channel to a depth of 14 or even 16 feet. It is the Army Corps’ responsibility to maintain the Inlet channel and the funding and resources for doing so are often in high demand.

“The Army Corps is responsible for the Inlet to its authorized depth and you get in line behind every other port in the country like the port of Baltimore or Norfolk for example for the funding to keep it open,” he said. “If you want to go beyond that and change the authorized depth, change the physical characteristics of the Inlet, the first step is this study.”

While the proposal calls for an equal share of $150,000 from both the county and Ocean City, some on the council pointed out the town’s taxpayers already contribute the lion’s share to the county budget. It’s important to note the county and the city are currently in the midst of a lawsuit to settle the tax differential, or tax-setoff, issue.

“Our share would be $150,000 and the county’s share would be $150,000, but our taxpayers pay 60 percent of the county’s budget already,” said Council Secretary Mary Knight. “Essentially, our taxpayers in this case would be paying $240,000. That’s just another example of how our taxpayers always get the short end of the deal.”

Mayor Rick Meehan said the proposed legislation would only allow the beach replenishment funds to be used for the Inlet study and the city, along with the county and the DNR, would hold sway over actually using it.

“This is only enabling legislation because it would have to be agreed upon by all three parties,” he said. “I share Dennis’ concerns. I’m also realistic on why some of the issues we’re having with the Inlet may be associated with our beach replenishment project to begin with. That’s something the study would help us determine.”

However, Meehan also agreed with Knight’s assessment of the funding formula, pointing out the Inlet issues were largely a county problem.

“I also feel the economic benefit of increasing the depth of the Inlet channel benefits the harbor and West Ocean City,” he said. “The harbor is in West Ocean City and Worcester County. The commercial fleet there, the boats moor-ed there, the restaurants and attractions associated with that go to the benefit of Worcester County and that can create inequity too. However, of the study itself, it would be relevant for the Town of Ocean City to participate, whether it comes out of here or somewhere else.”

Meehan urged his colleagues to tread lightly on the use of beach replenishment funds for what he characterized as largely a county problem.

“The real issue is they want to get authorized to 14 feet or 16 feet to really accommodate the commercial traffic that they’ve lost out of West Ocean City that has had a very strong economic impact,” he said. “Does it benefit Ocean City? Yes. To the same degree? Probably not. This is up to the council, but everybody up here agrees we have to handle this very, very cautiously.”

Councilman John Gehrig agreed the beach replenishment fund should not be tapped for the town’s share of the Inlet study.

“Councilman Dare is absolutely right,” he said. “I don’t think we want that camel’s nose under the tent. We know our number one asset is the beach and I don’t know that we even want to touch beach replenishment at all. I think we support the study, but I’m not willing to play chicken with that.”

Gehrig agreed the proposed funding formula penalized the Ocean City taxpayers for what is largely perceived as a county problem.

“We’re really paying 40 percent of the 50 percent local share,” he said. “We would pay $240,000 and the county would pay $60,000 and the largest economic impact is on the other side of the Route 50 bridge.”

While most agreed the Army Corps’ Inlet study was a necessity, Dare said the beach replenishment fund should not be a source to pay for it.

“There needs to be a study, there’s no question about that,” he said. “It needs to come out of economic development funds and not our beach replenishment fund. I really see this as a county problem. I don’t want to vote for enabling legislation.”

The Mayor and Council took no action and did not endorse the proposal to use beach replenishment funds for the Inlet study. McGean let it be known in no uncertain terms the town’s limited responsibility in a solution.

“I hope everyone has heard loud and clear the harbor is not in Ocean City,” he said. “The commercial fleet is not in Ocean City. There is a misconception that this is an Ocean City problem and that this is Ocean City’s fault, but that’s simply not the case.”

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.