Goodbye to Our Beaches on the Bay

Sunday, May 18 1997; Page C08 (Outlook Section, back page)
The Washington Post

Maryland is giving away the beaches of Chesapeake Bay, and the recipients are destroying them.

Since colonial times, the public has owned all of the shore in Maryland below the high-water mark. While there is ready access to ocean beaches, it is difficult to get to beaches along Chesapeake Bay. In other states, such as New Jersey, new subdivisions must include a path to the water, but in Maryland, bayfront development prevents the public from reaching the beach. The essence of the state's policy is: If you want to visit your beaches, buy a boat.

If you have a boat, you can land along any beach at low tide and take a walk along the shore -- for now. But soon, even boaters will be excluded from these beaches as the process of giving away the shore continues. Here is how it works:

The level of the sea is rising about an inch every decade, which causes most wetlands and beaches to erode a few feet per year. Homeowners losing parts of their yards are building various types of sea walls (usually piles of rocks called "revetments") to stop the erosion. The shore erodes up to the sea wall, and presto: no beach and no marsh. And because no land separates wall from water, the publicly owned part of the shore is eliminated. It is now a private waterfront.

Since 1980, more than 300 miles of shoreline essentially have been donated to private property owners. And that rate will almost certainly increase. Global warming, which has already raised the sea a few inches, is expected to raise water levels another foot in the next 50 years.

Because these sea walls are on public property, the state could require the homeowners to let the public walk along the shore above the sea wall. Without the walls, that land would belong to the public anyway, because the beaches and the state property lines would have moved inland.

Many states go farther than that: Maine and Rhode Island protect their dunes and marshes by prohibiting sea walls. Mississippi pumps sand to protect its bay beaches, and many states require homes to be moved back as shores erode. Maryland may be unique: Its Tidal Wetlands Act gives people the right to erect sea walls that eliminate wetlands and beaches.

Losing our natural shorelines is bad news for life in Chesapeake Bay. Terrapins cannot climb the walls, so they will be unable to lay their eggs. Estuarine beaches are habitat for endangered species such as the tiger beetle and the least tern. Many species of birds and fish depend on the marsh for habitat and food.

And people like beaches too. Next weekend, thousands of people will head to the ocean beaches. But for the first half of this century, everyone went to bay beaches such as Chesapeake Beach. What happens if we decide that we want our bay beaches back?

Protecting the shores of Chesapeake Bay would not require Draconian measures to prevent people from using their own property. We already own the shore. We just need a plan for holding on to our own property, and for making it easier to get there.

-- Jim Titus

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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