$20 million expansion of Bethany Beach, Del., yields dramatic change

Pittsburghers returning to Bethany Beach, Del., this summer will find it a tad farther away.

About 250 feet, in fact, depending on the tide.

That's the amount of beach that has been added since Labor Day on the 2.8 miles of shoreline from South Bethany through Bethany, as part of a collaboration between the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the state of Delaware.

If you go: Bethany Beach, Del.
  • Bethany Beach, Del., is about 350 miles southeast from Pittsburgh.
  • More information: Bethany-Fenwick Area Chamber of Commerce, www.bethany-fenwick.org, 36913 Coastal Highway, Fenwick Island, DE 19944. 1-302-539-2100; 1-800-962-SURF.

Although the depth of the new beach will ebb with tides, said Tony Pratt of the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, no longer will it be a mere spit away from the town center boardwalk.

Access, instead of just down steps to what had become a narrow, crowded strip of sand, will be via gently sloping crossovers that will traverse newly built dunes. The crossovers are at every street that previously had steps. The dunes, where grass has been planted, are about 16 feet above the "mean" sea level -- the level halfway between high and low tides, Mr. Pratt said.

The $20 million "beach nourishment and storm-reduction project," as Mr. Pratt's division officially calls it, is part of a long-term restoration and support of shores stretching back about 15 years, and miles and miles of beach, from Rehoboth and Dewey beaches, to the Bethanys, Fenwick Island and Ocean City, Md.

"The common denominator [of the projects] is they are constructed in urbanized beach communities with the intent being to reduce the loss that would occur when a major coastal storm would hit," said Mr. Pratt, administrator of the department's shoreline and waterway management office.

The project will be completed by Memorial Day, he said.

A peek at Bethany via bethanycam.com shows the broader beach near the town center at Garfield Parkway and South Atlantic Avenue, plus a crossover leading to the shoreline.

The look is entirely new for Bethany.

The beach "has never looked like this before, ever in its history, and the reason for that is that both Bethany and Rehoboth ... were laid out at the primary dune line," Mr. Pratt said. "People didn't know any better. They wanted a view. They didn't think about the fragility of the houses on the oceanfront."

How beachgoers will react to what is truly a sea change won't be fully known until the season gets under way in late May, but those involved with commerce at the shore seem gleeful at having achieved the wider beach.

"Everybody's thrilled because [the beach] was so small, every single high tide, the water was up to the boardwalk. There was no place to sit," said Karen McGrath, executive director of the Bethany Beach-Fenwick Area Chamber of Commerce.

"I think what we have is an absolutely fantastic, beautiful new beach," said Mayor Carol Olmstead, a member of Bethany Beach Council for five years.

"Sometimes people were here on vacation and literally, there was nowhere to sit on the beach."

Townspeople and tourists were very concerned, she said, and put a lot of pressure on Bethany officials to secure funding to complete the project.

They were pleased when they received word of full funding about this time last year.

Not everyone is happy.

"In my opinion, the money would have been better spent in New Orleans," said Leroy Gravatte, owner of the Addy Sea Bed and Breakfast at North Atlantic Avenue and Ocean View Parkway.

His property, built at the turn of the 20th century by John Addy, a Pittsburgh plumbing wholesaler and one of five founding Bethany Beach families, is a 13-bedroom, cedar-shingle Victorian that he has owned since 1974. Mr. Gravatte has been coming to Bethany Beach since 1946.

The Addy Sea sat on the beach until the Army Corps project came along.

"It used to be oceanfront; now it's on a dune ... I have to go to the second floor to see the ocean," said the genteel Mr. Gravatte, who is wintering in Florida.

He fears the changes -- which right now also include snow fences, in addition to the dune, which he calls a "berm" -- will adversely affect him and believes there may be evidence of that already.

Since January, income is down 26 percent since the same time last year and off 41 percent over 2006. "It could be that [the new beach] or it could be the economic cycle. In either case, I'm feeling the financial hardship."

Coupled with increases in taxes, Mr. Gravatte, who owns two other rental properties in Bethany Beach, wonders if the changes will create problems for employees and the town alike.

"They're going to feel the hardship I'm feeling because with my income off like it is, I think it's going to affect them as well."

He said he replenished the sand near his property in 1998, one of the damaging storm years cited in arguments made for the beach project, and hasn't seen any properties lost since the storm of 1962.

Each spring, Mother Nature has adequately replenished the beach where he is located, Mr. Gravatte said.

But Mr. Pratt and Ms. McGrath said that not only did beach erosion stand to impact properties, it boded poorly for commerce across the board. In fact, Mr. Pratt said the shrinking supply of public beach put off the people whose budgets allow only day trips.

"We sometimes talk exclusively about the high-end tourist, but there's also the average tourist ... people can get in the car, drive to Bethany and have a totally, wonderfully relaxing day at the beach."

If they can find a parking space.

Bethany, which bills itself along with Dewey Beach to the north and Fenwick Island to the south as "The Quiet Resorts," has been challenged in the past 15 years or so by exponential growth in construction of rental properties, private homes and businesses.

The parking issue is met by Ms. McGrath and Mayor Olmstead almost as a fait accompli, one that requires diligence and patience by both officials and beachgoers.

"I don't care which beach town you go to, whether to Florida or New Jersey or Delaware, parking is an issue in every beach town. It just is. There are more people who want to sit on the beach than parking spots, or parking spots that are close to where you want to be," said Ms. McGrath.

"If you're willing to walk a couple of blocks, drop off the kids and the boogie boards, you're going to find a spot."

Said Mayor Olmstead: "This is a very attractive location, and whenever you have an attraction, you're going to have people coming, and you're going to have change. We try to handle it the best we can.

"We're always committed to keeping Bethany as a small, community-oriented" town.

And one that welcomes Pittsburghers, who hit the Delaware beaches in large numbers each year.

"The one message I want to get across to the wonderful people of Pittsburgh is how much we appreciate them," said Mr. Gravatte.

"I think the people who come here this summer are going to be thrilled with having more beach to play on and to sit on and to enjoy," said Ms. McGrath.

Correction/Clarification: (Published Mar. 25, 2008) Bethany Beach, Del., is about 350 miles southeast from Pittsburgh. A wrong direction was given in this story as originally published Mar. 23, 2008 about a $20 million project to expand the beach.

Margi Shrum can be reached at mshrum@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3027. First Published March 23, 2008 4:00 AM


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