KURE BEACH, N.C. — Neat rows of townhouses, all in bold Miami Vice colors, face the beach where boys cast into the surf for bluefish and sea oats rustle in the breeze. It's an idyllic place, but a shifty one, with tidal waters so strong and tumultuous that sailors once nicknamed this coastal stretch, "The Graveyard of the Atlantic."
Every few years, the Army Corps of Engineers drops in to pump sand from the bottom of the nearby Cape Fear River, shoring up this vacationers' beachhead. Otherwise, locals say, this village of 2,000 year-round residents would have washed away long ago.
Today Kure Beach and hundreds of other coastal communities from the Jersey Shore to the tip of Florida are at the center of a renewed debate: Should US taxpayers in Kansas and Idaho be paying to safeguard coastal residents from the ocean's will - or should beach towns have to shovel the sand themselves?
Although the Clinton administration made the first of several failed efforts to end federal funding of "beach renourishment" in 1995, a special order from President Bush to cut the $120 million-a-year program is heating up the rhetoric again. Now, for the first time, dozens of small coastal towns are joining a pending lawsuit to stop the gambit. The debate has been fueled by this summer's record landings of four major hurricanes, which destroyed miles of beaches and exposed the weaknesses - and costs - of coastal economies.
"It's a Sisyphean task to stabilize beaches that have no intention of staying put," says David Conrad, a beach expert at the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) in Washington. "Much of the Bush administration's concerns have stemmed from the enormous and sustained costs these projects represent."
Critics of the plan, who are pushing Congress to overturn the White House order before it takes effect Nov. 20, say that federal beach-renourishment projects are a public good: The beaches are accessible to all and put tax revenue into federal coffers. And as a matter of principle, they argue, the government has an obligation to help protect America's boardwalks, arcades and high-rise hotels.
But advocates of reforms like these say that that federal programs actually promote overdevelopment - "Myrtle Beaching," as some call it - which, when hurricanes plow through, costs taxpayers billions in emergency subsidies and rebuilding costs.
"Unfortunately, rather than any type of careful thinking about where it's good to build and where it isn't, [the beach-renourishment program] promotes rampant growth almost anywhere on the coast," says Sidney Maddocks, an environmentalist who lives on Hatteras Island. "Places where people didn't build 60 or 70 years ago are now seeing eight- or 10-bedroom houses being built at base flood elevation."
The effects of tides are apparent on the seaboard: After hurricanes Frances and Jeanne hit Florida, 20 miles of sand washed away on Daytona Beach, reducing broad beaches to steep inclines.
On Figure Eight Island here in North Carolina, desperate homeowners have shored up the disappearing beach by throwing concrete-weighted tractor tires onto the sand. A project to shovel more sand onto a 17-mile stretch of Dare County beaches in North Carolina will cost $1.68 billion, most of it paid for by taxpayers.
"Can the nation afford to do this at a minimum cost of $1 million per mile every three to six years?" asked Duke University geologist Orrin Pilkey in a recent letter to Raleigh Metro Magazine.
Some experts also say that taxpayer dollars aren't always used wisely, or fairly, when funneled into towns where political machinations can thwart the public good. That became obvious in Westhampton Dunes, N.Y., after a 1991 storm destroyed dozens of stately beach homes. In part because of a nexus of local influences, the Army Corps efforts ended up protecting high-value homes and, critics charge, rendering some public beaches inaccessible. A decade later, the new homes are bigger than ever - many of them sitting on man-made dunes built since 1991.
When hurricane Isabel washed away a one-mile stretch of Route 12 on the Outer Banks last summer, opening what residents called an "inlet," officials depicted it as a matter of national security. Within three days, the ink was dry on plans for an $8 million project, running through a protected National Seashore, and two months later, cranes and bulldozers had filled the breach.
"Just this year after the hurricanes, you immediately heard the politicians say, 'We will rebuild,' and usually they follow it with 'bigger and better than before,' " says Mr. Maddocks. He hopes that if officials feel they "don't have an open federal pocketbook," they might give rebuilding plans - and their scope - more careful consideration.
Currently, all beaches in New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland are under beach-renourishment plans, says Mr. Conrad at NWF. Half of North Carolina's coast is covered, as are a third of Florida's beaches. And the efforts are growing: Projects are planned for the Florida and Texas panhandles, and the efforts there will expand the political support for the Army Corps' coastal work.
The White House gambit puts Bush on the side of environmentalists and others who have long voiced concerns about beach renourishment and criticized a system that has left taxpayers paying for land that shores up new coastal developments.
"It's a political and a philosophical argument," says Jim Leutze, former chancellor of the University of North Carolina-Wilmington and a critic of Bush's plan. "This is about shrinking government and then being able to say that the government doesn't have the money for things like beach renourishment."
With so much at stake, many say the government can't simply stop funding projects, since there's no way that small towns like Kure Beach - or cash-strapped states like North Carolina - could pick up the tab.
And some point out that beach-building projects can benefit the environment, too - encourage nesting, as at Westhampton Dunes, or protecting beaches from future storms.
Many critics of the White House tack suggest mixed motives, pointing to research saying the federal government receives $5 in tax revenue from beach economies for every $1 spent on shoveling sand.
"It's real hard for folks who are in the program ... to see that the big partner, the federal government, is suddenly not acting like a reliable partner," says Howard Marlowe, a Washington lobbyist for the American Shore and Beach Preservation Association.
Here in Kure Beach, Donald Lindsay and Steve Williamson prepare the day's catch of bluefish in a double-fryer on the back of Mr. Williamson's Ford truck - a ritual they've enjoyed for 60 years as lifetime residents of the town.
Though beachside development is often opposed locally, these tan retirees see federal funding to keep the ocean at bay as not just a priority, but an obligation. "If it weren't for the Army Corps, the ocean would long ago have carried us away," says Mr. Lindsay. "We can't afford to protect it ourselves."