BEACHES:

Sand dunes built by Army Corps at heart of fierce debate in Atlantic City

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. -- This city's fortunes have risen and plummeted over the years -- an emotional roller coaster not unlike the fate of gamblers in its oceanfront casinos.

A premier seaside resort for more than a century, Atlantic City went into a nose dive when easy air travel allowed Northeastern sun-seekers to escape to Florida and the Caribbean. In the 1970s the city remade itself as a gaming mecca, a position imperiled in recent years by the opening of casinos in neighboring states.

Now, with a major state-backed reinvestment under way, the city is once again looking to the sea.

But there's a problem: The sandy beaches and lapping waves can't be easily seen from the city's famed boardwalk.

Sand dunes -- built to nearly 15 feet tall by the Army Corps of Engineers as part of a 2004 shoreline protection program -- are blocking views and breezes.

The Army Corps, which picked up 65 percent of the project's $72.7 million tab, fixed the dunes' 14.75-foot height using a formula that accounts for the potential cost of damage to properties, the types of storms the beach is likely to face and the cost of replacing sand as it erodes over half a century.

While 14.75 feet might make perfect sense to the Army Corps, it baffled Pinky Kravitz, a lifelong resident of Atlantic City, host of a local radio program and columnist for the Press of Atlantic City.

"You wouldn't even know that there's an ocean out there," Kravitz said, shaking his head as he looked toward the water from the boardwalk on a recent winter day.

Kravitz is the voice of business leaders, residents and media personalities pushing to have the Atlantic City dunes lowered. The group has written opinion pieces in the local paper, lobbied the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and pressed the issue with Gov. Chris Christie (R).

Tony Rodio, president of the Tropicana Casino and Resort and head of the Casino Association of New Jersey, agreed.

"The economics and the competitive landscape of East Coast gambling has changed dramatically over the last six years," Rodio said in an interview as he looked down on the boardwalk from the Tropicana's second-story seafood restaurant. "The beach is one of the things that we have that makes us different than the regional competitors that we now face."

Atlantic City's story is just one take on a perennial debate had for years in towns up and down U.S. waterfronts: Do we want protection or a beautiful view?

Into that debate in late October roared Superstorm Sandy.

Sandy pummeled Atlantic City for hours. But for a small stretch of boardwalk in a residential neighborhood that drew heavy media coverage, the city's prize casinos and boardwalk emerged relatively unscathed from the storm.

On a warm winter day last month, the boardwalk was quiet but intact.

In front of Boardwalk Hall -- where Madonna, the Rolling Stones and the Beatles have performed -- storm victims were lined up to collect food stamps for groceries lost during the disaster. At Bally's, the Trump Taj Mahal and Showboat, the lights were bright and the slot machines were dinging. Restaurants along the boardwalk were emptier than usual, but at Johnny Rockets the serving staff was still dancing oldies in the aisles.

"They made it through the storm because the dunes were there," said Stewart Farrell, president of Richard Stockton College of New Jersey's Coastal Research Center, which completed a study earlier this year for the DEP analyzing how much protection the Atlantic City dune system would provide at various lower heights.

Mike Turon, director of facilities for the Tropicana, hunkered down in the building during Sandy and watched as waves thrashed the dunes out front. A few waves broke over, he said, but the dunes kept the ocean water from inundating the building.

That was enough to change his boss's mind.

"Seeing what we saw during the storm, I am firmly convinced that had those dunes been 3 or 4 feet lower, which is what we were looking for, the bay would have met the ocean," Rodio said, noting that the bay water coming from the other direction reached to within a block of his building. "I really, really strongly believe that those dunes are what saved us."

Indeed, communities up and down Sandy's path that had previously turned down Army Corps projects are now hoping to get another shot.

Christie, the force behind the Atlantic City reinvestments, had previously agreed to look into lowering the city's dunes but is now telling shore communities to learn to live with them. He has asked the Army Corps to re-engineer the entire New Jersey coastline.

But although Sandy changed many minds about the dunes, it hasn't changed all of them.

Late last month, Tom Foley, the chief of emergency management for Atlantic City and part of Kravitz's coalition, was driving down Atlantic Avenue. As his SUV passed pawn shops, pizza-by-the-slice counters, payday loan spots and bodegas, he toggled between phone calls. Since Sandy, his phone has been ringing constantly. Drug-addicted storm victims want disaster money to help them get their fix; the hotel managers putting them up want to know when the victims will be able to return to their apartments.

When Foley pulled up to a beach on the northern end of the city, he hung up his phone, put the car in park and looked out on some of the $18 million worth of sand that was pumped onto the Atlantic City shoreline this summer.

Foley, an Atlantic City native, has watched the coastline take a pummeling from a variety of storms in that time, including the brutal Ash Wednesday Storm, which pounded the mid-Atlantic Coast for three days in March 1962. The storm killed 40 people and injured 1,000 between North Carolina and New York; it destroyed half of Atlantic City's famous Steel Pier.

He admits he is not an engineer, but nevertheless, he is convinced that what saved Atlantic City from Sandy was the wider beach built last summer, not the dunes.

"I don't know why people can't just look with their eyes," he said. "It's the wide beach that saved us. The dunes are good for only one thing -- killing the economy."