Tales of the Coast
Coastal Histories


Dynamic Sustainability: Maryland's Atlantic Coast

Ocean City and Assateague Island

Dynamic Sustainability: Shoreline Management on Maryland's Atlantic Coast

1963-1980, Different Trajectories, Similar Problems

Ocean City

Ocean City continued to build more developments after the Five-High Storm to compensate for the damage and provide for the increasing number of visitors. In the mid 1960s the town annexed the land northward to the Delaware state line and began building there as well. But as a narrow spit of land, the space for development was limited so developers created more land by filling the bay side wetlands.

Citizens and officials began to protest the destruction of wetlands. The Maryland Wetlands Act of 1970 regulated the alteration of wetlands, and the Clean Water Act of 1972 authorized the Corps to regulate dredging and filling operations. Likewise, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) of 1970 mandated environmental impact assessments and the adoption of the least environmentally damaging option for development.

Congress directed the Corps to begin a study of erosion along the Atlantic coast of Maryland shortly after the Five-High Storm. This study began earnestly investigating the possibility of a large-scale beach nourishment project as a long-term response to the continuing erosion problem.

The town of Ocean City tried to implement its own beach nourishment techniques. The mayor at the time rescinded the town's support for the Corps' beach nourishment plan twice in the early 1970s and instead directed the town to build more groins along the beach. He also advocated bulldozing sand from the nearshore waters onto the beach.

In 1975 an ordinance was passed that established a building line on the beach across which no structures could be built for risk of erosion damage. Then in 1978, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) granted its support to the Corps beach nourishment plan and a feasibility study was initiated.

The Corps released its findings in 1980, and the study advocated a large-scale, 50-year beach nourishment project that entailed enlarging the beach with dredged sand, building a steel bulkhead along the boardwalk at the southern end of town, and building a line of dunes from the northern end of the boardwalk all the way to the Delaware state line.


Ocean City Inlet

In 1963 the south jetty was extended and reattached to the shoreline after damage inflicted by the Five-High Storm. Dredging requirements increased slowly but steadily over the 1960s and 1970s, but the inlet retained a relatively high flushing capacity. The ebb-tidal shoal widened significantly during this time, and the continual force of waves pushed the shoal closer to northern Assateague Island.

Rates of erosion along the northern end of Assateague became increasingly erratic by the 1970s. Some of this is attributed to beach fill operations that took place in the area. As the inlet was dredged more often in the 1960s, the Corps deposited the dredged spoil on the northern part of the island for expediency.

The ebb-tidal shoal moving closer to Assateague Island also helped the erosion problem. When a shoal reaches equilibrium, it can become a sand bridge to downdrift areas, and the changing shoreline retreat rates indicated that the ebb-tidal shoal was close to reaching equilibrium and would therefore begin providing sand to the northern end.


Assateague Island

The Five-High Storm destroyed nearly all the developments on Assateague Island, and the Department of the Interior saw this as an opportunity to acquire the island for a national seashore.

By 1963 two bridges had opened connecting the island to the mainland: one at the northern end and one at the southern end. The few thousand landowners who had invested in the island still hoped to develop seaside resort homes. Different studies were undertaken to assess the possibility of making the island a national seashore or into a developed community. Both a study conducted by the Department of the Interior and one by Worcester County officials determined it would be costly and difficult to build permanent structures on the island.

In 1965 the island was designated as Assateague Island National Seashore. Assateague State Park remained under the state's control, and Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge stayed under the jurisdiction of the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS).

Conservationists founded the Committee to Preserve Assateague in 1970. This became a very vocal group that advocated for reduced development in the national seashore. Revisions to the original legislation began to circulate as stakeholders decided to emphasize wilderness preservation over recreational developments.

In 1976 the legislation for Assateague Island National Seashore was amended to remove previous provisions for a road and other developments. Wilderness preservation would remain the seashore's central focus.

In 1980, the Corps feasibility study for the Ocean City project recommended beach nourishment for Assateague Island to combat the erosion at the north end. But there wasn't a consensus between stakeholders at the time for instituting such a project.


Growing Awareness

The growing national emphasis on environmental preservation and protection became an important issue at Ocean City and it involved local, state, and Federal agencies, including the Corps.

The National Shoreline Study, completed in 1971, highlighted how erosion was widespread across all the coasts of the U.S. This study also determined that recreational beaches were economically and socially important and that beach nourishment was often the best option for combating erosion.

Coastal Zone Management

The Coastal Zone Management Act (CZMA) of 1972 mandated consideration of ecological, cultural, historical, and aesthetic values when carrying out construction or engineering in the coastal zone.

Rare Birds

The overwashed landscape on the northern end of the island became an important habitat for birds such as the piping plover and least tern, which struggled to find that rare environment in other places along the eastern seaboard.