Avalon, N.J., and Dutch visitors share coastal-protection ideas

Avalon's wide dunes are an example of the local use of natural formations to control erosion. TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Avalon's wide dunes are an example of the local use of natural formations to control erosion. TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
Posted: August 05, 2013

AVALON, N.J. - Though they are from different countries and represent governments that may be oceans apart on mitigating crises, they found themselves on common ground as they walked along a beach in this Jersey Shore town.

And now an ongoing exchange between local officials and government representatives from the Netherlands may create a confluence of ideas about coastal protection that could benefit both regions, Mayor Martin Pagliughi said.

"We thought we could learn a thing or two from a country that has been involved in coastal protection for hundreds of years. But it is amazing how much we have in common. . . . It actually surprised us how similar the things they do are to what we do," said Pagliughi, who met the Dutch experts during a recent U.N. conference in New York and invited them down to Avalon.

They arrived in Avalon on Wednesday and spent three days touring the beaches and meeting with workers on the front lines of flooding and ocean erosion and with Cape May County tourism representatives. Tourism is a vital part of Cape May County's economy, generating $5.2 billion a year. Statewide tourism is a huge business, a $40 billion-a-year industry in the Garden State.

"Tourism is such an integral part of why we do what we do here," Pagliughi said. "To give them the entire picture of how vitally important tourism is to this region, the economy, we thought tourism officials should be part of the discussion."

But the most similar strategy the two sides discovered between them is a movement away from building structures like groins and seawalls in the United States and dikes in the Netherlands and instead using natural barriers to keep the water at bay, Pagliughi said.

And the differences, they found, are mostly philosophical: Beach protection in the States is often used as a hot-button political issue in which funding is long debated; in the Netherlands, the government automatically pays for rebuilding homes and infrastructure.

"No one in the Netherlands debates whether flood protection is needed," noted Arjan Braamskamp, economic minister of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.

The Dutch have been dealing with flooding since the 1300s, with as much as 60 percent of the country's population living in a flood plain, places that would be underwater without water-management measures, Braamskamp said.

Protecting the coastline in his country is mandated by law, although Braamskamp acknowledged protecting homes and farms was a costly proposition. Nice wide beaches - the narrowest about 500 feet wide - are the result.

Although famous for their dikes, the Dutch are actually moving away from building those structures, favoring instead natural options like dunes and natural sand movement.

Braamskamp, along with Rob de Vos, Netherlands general consul at the United Nations, is spending about three months in the United States studying the effects of Hurricane Sandy on the region.

And even before Pagliughi invited the representatives, Avalon was already on their list of places to see: The Cape May County beach about 12 miles north of Cape May is touted by the federal government as one of America's few coastal communities that is prepared for massive flooding.

By an accident of nature and staunch preservation efforts, the high dunes of Avalon, a mostly undeveloped stretch of sandy grassland and bayberry with a canopy of Atlantic cedar and pine that soars as high as 50 feet on the beachfront, create a unique barrier along New Jersey's 127-mile coastline.

The natural structure and other storm-mitigation and beach-resiliency efforts to protect residents and infrastructure have afforded the borough a higher community rating and special certification from the Federal Emergency Management Agency that will have Avalon property owners paying about 25 percent less - overall about $1 million townwide - in flood-insurance premiums than those in other Shore communities, officials said.

"As a result of our proactive approach to flood-mitigation efforts, property owners will enjoy the highest rating by FEMA's Community Rating System afforded to any town in New Jersey," Pagliughi said. "That translates into significant savings on flood-insurance premiums."

Avalon is also the only coastal community in New Jersey with a triple-A bond rating from Standard & Poor's. Officials contend a major part of that designation has to do with Avalon's storm-mitigation and dune-building efforts to protect the community, homes, and infrastructure.

"We plan to continue to exchange ideas and research with the Dutch," Pagliughi said, "and I think the partnership will be one more beneficial component to our entire strategy here moving forward."

Contact Jacqueline L. Urgo at 609-652-8382, jurgo@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @JacquelineUrgo. Read the Jersey Shore blog, "Downashore," at inquirer.com/downashore.

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