Tensions are high in the normally relaxed town of Chincoteague, Virginia.
Located in the northeastern part of Virginia’s shoreline, it is the gateway to Assateague Island National Seashore and Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. It is best known for its wild ponies and annual pony swim.
This picturesque beach town of 4,300 residents relies on tourism to keep it afloat, attracting one million visitors annually. Residents and the Chamber of Commerce are concerned that a new plan proposed by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to prepare for sea-level rise, would result in relocating their beloved beach and in sending beach seeking tourists flocking to Ocean City.
Various Groups Are Interested in Chincoteague Beach
The proposed beach changes are part of a fifteen year plan for the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. The contentiousness is due in part to the fact that the FWS, not the town, is tasked with managing the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, and the beach that lies within the refuge. From its perspective, the FWS is mandated to protect wildlife such as the piping plover and migratory birds, not the beach. FWS argues that it can’t protect the beach from sea level rise and other natural challenges.
Storms and Sea Level Rise Are Impacting The Beach
The federal visitor’s center has been moved twice because of erosion. One hundred yards of shoreline have been lost since the 1960s. Most recently during Hurricane Irene, the beach parking lot was washed out and tourists needed to be shuttled to the beach. Each time the lot is washed away taxpayers pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to fix it on land that FWS argues could be better used for nesting piping plovers.
Chincoteague Residents Fear the Tourists May Leave If the Beach Moves
Town residents argue that the beach is what drew many of them to the area and to open hotels, restaurants and other businesses to serve the tourists that come to visit the beach. None of the FWS proposed alternatives were acceptable to residents who quote a survey, where 82% of visitors said if they had to load their beach gear on a bus they would head elsewhere.
The USFWS’s plan offered four alternatives:
1) No action alternative, continuation of current management, which would allow the beach to erode.
2) Concentrated Traditional Beach Recreation
3) Sustainable Recreation and Climate Change Adaptation
4) Natural Island Evolution and A Primitive Island Experience: Relocate the public beach one mile north and establish a remote parking lots and shuttlebus linking the beach and lot. The northern location is in a cove that is naturally protected from sea-level rise, storm surge and erosion. Some parking could eventually be built within walking distance of the new beach so that not all tourists would have to be shuttled.
For more detailed information on the four alternatives go to the National Park Service website.
A Fifth Alternative: The 1-2-3 Common Sense Plan for Storm Damage Reduction
Some residents and Mayor John Tarr have proposed a fifth alternative: Keep the beach and parking lot (with its 961 spots) where they are, but build sand dunes to protect the beach from storms. FWS says this alternative is not feasible. The town is calling their plan, the 1-2-3 Common Sense Plan for Storm Damage Reduction.
Is the town entitled to expect the beach and parking lot to remain where they currently are? Should the federal government build additional infrastructure to help keep the beach and the tourism industry created around it in place?
Perhaps some marriage of aspects of the alternatives would result in a compromise, that may not make everyone happy, but perhaps a plan that everyone could live with.
Regardless, sea level change is coming to Chincoteague and we will increasingly see coastal communities facing similarly contentious choices.