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In Virginia Beach, a Sand Dune Story With a Happy Ending

We’re used to blaming the Army Corps of Engineers for monolithic, expensive reclamation projects that go bad. Here’s something they did right, and at a very low cost.

Sand dunes bordering the ocean in Virginia Beach, Va.
(Sherry V Smith/Shutterstock)
I’ve watched the dunes grow in front of my old family home in Virginia Beach, Va., for four decades.

When I first stayed there in 1979, as a college student on break, the dunes were so small I could easily see across them to the waves crashing on the beach. Now they are so wide and high I can barely see the ocean at all when I look out from the picture window on the second floor. There are several rows of dunes now. Where there once was thin beach grass, there are now shrubs and small trees.

These higher, wider dunes provide a lot of benefits, the chief one being protection from the Atlantic Ocean about 100 yards away. I’ve been told several times that these “oceanfront” homes are no longer in a floodplain and don’t require flood insurance, so high and wide are the dunes. The dunes do diminish the views, so the newer homes, usually two or three stories, tend to be built higher. That’s their one drawback.

The neighbors I’ve talked to over the years all love the dunes, but I’ve met no one, besides myself, who knows their provenance: the Army Corps of Engineers. It was the Corps that nurtured the dunes into the formidable domain they are now.

I think this is worth pointing out, because many people, me included, often criticize the Corps for building monolithic, expensive projects that have all the subtlety of a concrete violin. And beach replenishment projects in particular have been attacked as wasteful and bound to fail. Yet here is a coastal project that has worked so well its origins have disappeared into the sand.

Most importantly, climate change is a reality, and as the country and shoreline cities like Virginia Beach face higher seas, how to protect these areas is a central question. I’m not against big projects, even if they are sometimes invasive. I’m a fan of the giant proposed billion-dollar sea gate across the New York harbor, for example. But if something can be achieved with a light hand, not to mention more cheaply, that’s better.

The Corps took several low-intrusion steps. In the 1980s, they installed sand fences in the dunes. I remember that when I looked out on these wood-and-wire structures I was annoyed by how they changed my view. What I didn’t understand is that in a few years, the fences would be submerged by the sand they helped collect. And the dunes would be on a virtuous path of growing higher and longer.

The second thing the Corps did was build elevated walkways at the end of each street that terminated at the beach. These replaced simple paths through the dunes. The walkways were made of planks of synthetic material that at first I didn’t like. Why hadn’t the Corps used wood? But these synthetic planks were virtually indestructible, and several decades later, they still look great and function well. These elevated walkways diverted people from the homemade paths leading past each of the residences, paths that typically ran right through the rising dunes.

Seeking to put some facts around my memories, I recently contacted the local Corps office in Norfolk. Breeana M. Harris, the public affairs officer there, at first had difficulty finding anyone who knew about a project that far back. But eventually she did find that the dune replenishment project was a minor part of ongoing efforts over the decades for sand replacement down on the eroded beaches of the Virginia Beach resort strip and in other parts of the city. The Corps dredged up sand, which had the benefit of keeping channels clear, and then deposited it on the beach. Various beach replenishment and protection projects actually started in the 1950s.

One document she forwarded to me, probably from the 2000s, refers to the “58th to 89th Street Strengthened Dune System” and “Pedestrian Cross-Overs.”

The lighter-touch methods used to encourage dune development contrasted with those used in the larger and more expensive sand replenishment projects. Those projects were necessitated in part by the sea walls built in the mid-20th century to protect hotels and cottages. The walls had the unfortunate effect of encouraging the erosion of the beach itself, locking the city into a cycle of having to annually replace the sand that had been washed away.

Overall, the Corps’ shoreline protection efforts fit into a large debate as to whether to hold off rising seas, or retreat and cede much of the shoreline to them. There are those who question the Corps spending any public money to protect coastal areas, particularly rich people’s homes. I think this small dune enhancement project bears looking at, because it was cheap and worked with nature. And it protects not just the expensive homes like the one that belonged to my family, but the blocks of homes and streets that lie behind them.

The dune project near our home has had its own unintended consequences, but they’re good ones: It’s now practically a nature preserve. Standing at that same beachfront window, I have watched foxes, rabbits, snakes and possums go by. Locals debate whether there are coyotes as well.

This year, my siblings and I sold our house on the beach. The new owners will probably tear it down and build something higher, which is perfectly appropriate. Whatever rises there, I hope those dunes, the ones foxes and snakes now wander in, continue to grow and expand. And I will be grateful to the much-maligned Corps of Engineers for making them possible.
An urban affairs and infrastructure columnist for Governing. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @Amcities.
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