The American Shore and Beach Preservation Association
Protecting our coastal economy and ecology since 1926
The Accessibility Guidelines for
Federal Outdoor Developed Areas
The Honorable Harry Simmons
Mayor of Caswell Beach, North Carolina
President, American Shore and Beach Preservation Association
I would like to thank the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board again for allowing me to appear before the Board on September 6, 2007, regarding the Accessibility Guidelines for Federal Outdoor Developed Areas (the Guidelines), in particular, the provisions concerning beach access. As proposed in these Guidelines, providing stable and safe beach access routes is a highly desirable goal. However, the Guidelines reach beyond what may be attainable within the dynamics of a beach environment.
As Mayor of Caswell Beach, a small coastal town in North Carolina, and as President of the American Shore and Beach Preservation Association (ASBPA), I have tremendous interest in the Guidelines. For those of us who participate in the federal shore protection program, we will be legally and fiscally responsible for ensuring that the beach is in compliance with the new Guidelines.
In response to the proposed Guidelines, ASBPA surveyed its nation-wide membership, which includes local and state officials, coastal engineers, and current and former U.S. Army Corps of Engineers coastal experts. The substance of ASBPA’s comments that follow has been gathered from the feedback received. What was most striking about the responses was the almost universal opinion that many of the most important requirements in the Guidelines are incompatible with the way a beach naturally works.
The requirement in the Guidelines that received the most concern from ASBPA’s members is the mandate that the access route end at the Mean High Water line. This line is extremely close to the waves and will result in regular destruction of the access route. The Mean High Water line is a moving feature of the beach. It is constantly adjusting throughout the seasons. On some long flat beaches the line moves upwards of 100 feet back and forth two to three times per year.
Additionally, the beach elevation varies across the beach profile on each beach. Typical seasonal changes are 6 to 8 feet vertically but have exceeded 12 feet for both erosion and recovery. As the Access Board can see, this is a drastic change in the beach profile. What’s more amazing is that beaches are so unpredictable that it can happen in one day’s time.
It is assumed that “high tide level” described as the access route terminus approximates the mean high water elevation (MHW). This area has a tide range of roughly 4 feet resulting in a MHW elevation of +2 feet above mean sea level (MSL). The beachface is formed by and indicative of the extent of wave run-up at each high tide. The berm to beachface intersection on the summer beach in this area is typically +6 to +8 feet above MSL.
The destructive force of waves is significant and not to be taken lightly. The force of even a small wave, particularly a breaking wave, can be quite pronounced. Most people would be cautious in 125-mph wind gusts. However, few realize that building walls designed for such winds are consistently destroyed by a few 1.5-foot breaking waves. That is considerably smaller than the average daily wave height on most ocean beaches. Wave forces can be effectively avoided by open, piling-like foundations, but any solid horizontal or vertical surfaces are subject to wave loading and probable failure. This is why it is industry practice in coastal engineering to avoid constructing any kind of structures beyond the point where the dune and berm interface. For environmental, storm damage reduction, and public safety reasons, some states, such as Florida, forbid the construction of any structure more then 10 feet beyond the dune vegetation line.
Terminating the access route at the high tide level makes it likely that an access structure would be displaced or partially destroyed with each rising tide. At a minimum, full-time maintenance would be 3 required for each access route. Moving the termination point to the intersection of the berm and beachface would increase, but not guarantee, the chance of avoiding damage or burial at each high tide. Full-time maintenance at each access route during a couple hours around high tide would be required for safety and stability. Moving the terminus well landward of the berm-beachface intersection would substantially reduce, but not eliminate, the need for frequent maintenance. If the terminus was at the foot of the dune or vegetation line, the risk of destruction would be no greater or less than the risk of destruction for current public access structures.
A variety of commercially available mats and fabrics could be used for a temporary access route, but none is likely to remain stable in the wave run-up at high tide. Beyond the structural threat to the access route, dislodged material pushed by wave run-up will create potentially dangerous debris that threatens anyone requiring use of the access route and those recreating in the surf.
Mobi-Mats in Tybee Island, GA
The Guidelines state the beach access routes are expected to be open all hours during which the public has access to the beach. On many beaches that means 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. It is impossible to predict in advance when storm-induced erosion will occur, therefore partial damage to permanent and temporary access routes will be frequent. At the very least, an annual total loss should be expected between the vegetation line and the water. Damage at night would inevitably create unseen safety hazards for beach users.
If the terminus point for the access route is at the foot of the dune, wheelchairs will have to cross the sand to get to the water line, which would be extremely difficult to do in a traditional wheelchair. There are quite a few models of beach wheelchairs available to the consumer, but the cost, size, and design make them unaffordable to many of those who require one. Many beach cities and counties have them available for public use at no or little charge. One community in Cape May County, New Jersey, offers beach wheelchairs at three points along their 4.5 mile-long federal beach project. They currently have approximately 25 wheelchairs and will be purchasing more to accommodate demand. They are available at the existing disabled access points in the town and the beach patrol manages them free of charge to users. The town’s public works director considers it one of the town’s most successful community service beach programs.
The Access Board should consider requiring the federal government to assist in the purchase of these special wheelchairs and place the local governmental agency that is in charge of managing the beach with the requirement of developing a program to provide them to users. The cost of the wheelchairs is significantly less then the cost of constructing and maintaining a ramp or temporary matting. Obviously there will still need to be access from the parking area to the water side of the dune, but this approach avoids the destruction and maintenance problems cited above. Lending out beach wheelchairs is already a tried and successful program at some of the larger and more popular beaches around the nation, and in those cases the beach already has wheelchair accessibility facilities.
But there are also many miles of beach where the local government does not have the financial or personnel resources to provide beach services, such as life guards and full-time maintenance staff, and the access is little more then a gravel parking lot and a narrow trail over the dune. In these cases it would be necessary to give the local jurisdiction the flexibility to set up a wheelchair program that is consistent with their limited resources. The Board could still require the local sponsor to provide beach wheelchairs, but should allow the community to design a program that reflects their beach usage and the resources they provide.
All beaches are not alike. Some have long slopes to the water and some have steep slopes. Some have no dunes and some have dunes that are 30 feet tall. Some beaches have plentiful public easements and some are very restricted. These factors are not only from beach to beach, but in many cases vary from one end to the other of a single beach.
The Guidelines use a one size fits all approach to beaches. At beaches without dunes, it is fairly easy for users to get from the street to the water. Creating access will be fairly easy, as well. Many beaches have a natural dune that serves to provide environmental and storm damage reduction protection. At busy beaches, a structure must be built to get people over the dune. Unfortunately, it is impossible to have an ADA compliant ramp at narrower beaches that include dunes of any size as a part of the beach’s profile. ADA ramp rules permit only a 2.5-foot drop for every 30 feet in length. Therefore, in areas where the ramp may be 25 feet in elevation, the length will have to be 300 feet to meet the code. This is not possible in many areas, especially where the beach is not 300-plus feet wide. An alternative solution could be to run the boardwalk parallel to the dune for 30-60 feet and then switch back the other direction. In a 25-foot high dune area, that would lead to 5 to 10 switchbacks. However, this would require that the public easement at that location to be at least 30-60 feet wide. Unfortunately, in many cases easements are only 10 to 20 feet wide. Compounding this problem are state laws prohibiting structures from being built more then 10 feet beyond the dune vegetation line.
Beach safety vehicles and maintenance vehicles need to have unimpeded movement along the beach. If a ramp extends across the beach to the MHW line, vehicles will be forced to go around them by driving into the surf-line. This would be a serious problem during severe weather conditions when the waves are highest. Vehicles need to be able to patrol the beach for dangerous erosion or potentially life threatening situations. If vehicles are impeded from moving up and down the beach by fixed structures, public safety could be endangered.
Temporary mats or fabrics might be passable, but will get beaten up quickly if one-ton pick-up trucks are driving over them multiple times per day. If they extend all the way to MHW line, they will be just one more hazard that safety personnel will have to monitor during severe weather conditions.
Many of our members suggested a phased implementation of the guidelines. Federal beach projects range from two to 90 miles long. For example, a 30-mile existing beach project will need to have access routes at 24 of the 60 public access points. Since every beach is different and sections of the beach act differently, it would be sensible to allow a variety of access routes to be installed to determine which works the best for that beach before requiring the immediate and widespread installation of the access routes throughout the whole beach project area. In some cases only Mobi-Mats might work, or only beach wheelchairs, or it might be possible to build a fixed ramp down to near the MHW line but not all the way. It is almost always the local sponsor who best knows the dynamics of the beach. Since the construction of any beach access facility would be partially paid for by the local project sponsor and the cost of maintenance would be the full responsibility of the local project sponsor, ASBPA is requesting that the local sponsor be given flexibility to pursue the best method for providing this access to its disabled users.
In the current federal budget climate, it is very unlikely that the Office of Management and Budget will include the funding needed to carry out these federal guidelines. The federal government is severely under-funding federal beach projects as it is. Between the Administration’s desire to disengage from these projects and Congress’ inability to fully fund them, the initial construction and periodic nourishment of many of these projects (whose primary purpose is storm damage reduction) have been significantly delayed.
As it currently falls upon the local sponsor to maintain the public access points and facilities along the beach, it will likely also be their responsibility to come up with the funding, oversee construction and continual maintenance of these access points. Not only will localities have to pick up these costs, but they will also need to hire more personnel for these purposes, especially if mats are used.
In New Jersey, the Corps of Engineers and the State have installed five ramps at federal beaches over the last five years. Since these ramps were part of the original project design, the cost of construction was included at a 65 percent federal to 35 percent non-federal cost share. However, 100 percent of the cost of maintaining them will be paid for by the non-federal sponsor. (The non-federal sponsor of new or existing federal beaches is either the state or the local government.) The ramps were built to allow access equal to that provided to not disabled people, which is a ramp from the parking lot to the toe of the dune. The ramps in New Jersey averaged $275,000 per ramp to construct, but they also did not extend all the way to the MHW.
For existing federal beach projects, the non-federal sponsors will likely have to pay for the entire cost of constructing the new ramps because the Corps is strictly bound to the scope of a project detailed in the Final Report of the Chief of Engineers. Any new features or additional costs will require a General Reevaluation Report (GRR), which takes several years and typically cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Under the Guidelines, for 40 percent of an existing 10-mile long federal beach to comply, 8 ramps would need to be constructed at a total cost of $2,200,000. In addition, new federal beach projects must have 100 percent accessibility, which for a 10 mile long beach would require 18 ramps, totaling nearly $5 million. This would be an expensive unfunded mandate on local and state governments, especially those that are more rural in nature without the huge tax base of say Miami.
ASBPA is not suggesting that local governments do not have an obligation to provide access and facilities for people with disabilities. Rather, we are simply trying to convey to the Board that the current budget restrictions in Washington will place a disproportionate financial burden upon local communities to fund a federal requirement at a federal beach project.
Finally, the Guidelines may have some negative impacts on beach environment and habitat. As the Mayor of Caswell Beach, which has a federal beach project, I can not stress enough how attentive we are to making sure the beaches are kept clean of dangerous debris and that wildlife has unimpeded access. If access routes that go down to the Mean High Water line are destroyed by severe weather, it will be unsafe for humans and animals to use that area of the beach.
Additionally, obstacles that block the path of turtles or disrupt the habitat of endangered shore birds like the piping plover could raise concerns with other federal and state agencies or violate existing state and federal environmental laws. In Florida, structures can not extent beyond 10 feet from the dune due to habitat protection concerns. Nevertheless, in Walton County the dunes are 25 feet tall and the easements are 5 feet wide. As the Guidelines specify on page 34084, state environmental laws can supersede compliance with the Guidelines. The Access Board should be prepared to have many of the beach Guidelines overridden by federal and state environmental laws.
To reiterate, the main points expressed above are: 1) requiring the access route to extend to the MHW will cause regular destruction of the access route; 2) beach wheelchairs should be considered as a viable option; 3) it will be an engineering and legal impossibility to construct ramps over dunes in many cases; 4) public safety issues arise if access routes bisect the beach; 5) local sponsors should be given the flexibility to install access routes in phases in order to determine the most practical and reliable access for people with disabilities; 6) current federal funding limitations on beach projects will likely place a disproportionate financial burden on non-federal sponsors of projects; and 7) the Board should be prepared for state and federal environmental laws to supersede construction of many access routes.
ASBPA would like to thank the Board again for considering the association’s comments for the Guidelines. ASBPA is in general agreement with the Board that people with disabilities need to have increased access to beaches, and it is the our hope that, from these comments, the Board will be able to revise the Guidelines to ensure attainable and practical solutions.
1100 Caswell Beach Road, Caswell Beach, NC 28465
(910)200-7867 • Fax (800)967-0816
Visit the ASBPA online at www.asbpa.org
c/o Marlowe & Company
1667 K Street, Suite 480, Washington DC 20006
(202)775-1796 • Fax (202)775-0214
Founded in 1926, ASBPA represents the scientific, technical and political interests along the coast in an effort to shape national research and policy concerning shore and beach management and restoration.