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Sand Blasted 

A wealthy town develops its coast -- and washes away its neighbors

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With little resistance, the village got its permits approved by the ODNR and the Army Corps of Engineers. Throughout the process, Madison residents were repeatedly told their properties wouldn't be affected, they say. As collateral, the permits even included a provision aiming for "no net loss" — jargon for you won't lose any beach — to the neighboring beaches down-drift from the marina.

Construction began in the spring of 2009. Soon after, John Miller got a taste of what was to come. A specialist with Microsoft who'd lived on the property for more than ten years, Miller was familiar with how the beach would recede in bad weather. But that didn't prep him for what he came home to after a weeklong vacation with his family.

While away, a fierce storm had pummeled the beach, and Miller's stretch, protected by a breakwall, wore the wear and tear.

"When we had left, you could step off my breakwall about six inches to a foot down and you'd be on the beach, and that beach ran out from my breakwall about 40 or 50 feet," he explains.

When Miller returned and stepped up to his breakwall, the sand below was completely gone.

"What used to be a foot step off the end of the breakwall was now a six- or seven-foot drop, because the waves had come in and sourced the sand."

The storm's impact wasn't out of the norm. But what troubled the homeowner was that no sand had flowed back in to replenish the beach as it usually did.

Despite the "No Trespassing" signs, Miller decided to swim over to the North Perry line to see if the sand that should have refilled his beach had built up on the western edge of the marina instead. It was a Sunday, and the construction site was empty. But Miller didn't get far: Once he stepped out of the water and onto the North Perry beach, he was accosted by a North Perry police officer who was guarding the project. Miller tried to explain he was a neighbor, but was ticketed anyway. Eventually, the charges were dropped, but the incidents — both the sand loss and the confrontation — proved to be the strings cueing the overture.

A MAJOR MISCALCULATION

Here are the basic ABCs of waterfront geekdom: Through a layman's eyes, a beach might seem like a stationary hump of land, but it's actually a dynamic gear works that runs on the tick-tock of water flow. Sand is constantly moving in and out on the coast, a movement scientists call "littoral drift." On Lake Erie, that movement happens primarily from west to east.

With constant movement a requisite of the ecosystem, any time a project is built out onto the lake, it's feared the man-made thrust will interrupt that sand flow. Cut off from the usual lifeline, beaches down-drift from the project can erode and wither.

But when North Perry proposed the Townline project, it claimed its marina wouldn't significantly interrupt the littoral drift. As part of the permitting process, JJR commissioned a sand-flow study that determined the design would capture only about 1,000 cubic yards of sand per year. At that rate, the study guessed, the city would only have to dredge the western edge of the marina and redistribute the sand every five years — resulting in the better beaches North Perry officials promised to Madison property owners.

But by the spring of 2010 — the marina's first year — Madison residents saw more evidence that things weren't kosher. The beach at the bottom of Ted Lyndall's stairs had been eaten away to about 10 feet of sand. The breakwall that guarded Miller and Walrath's properties had been undermined: The huge anchor stones worked lose, snapping their metal wiring. By summer, portions of it began to visibly slope down — not exactly what you want from your support wall.

Up the beach, the marina was experiencing first-year problems of its own. More sand than expected was accumulating on the western edge — much more. Rather than the 1,000 cubic yards projected, the North Perry site was collecting so much sand that it was difficult to launch boats. Although the projections said the village would need to dredge the marina once every five years, the area was eventually dredged three times in 2010 alone: a total of almost 20,000 cubic yards over an eight-month span.

"IT WAS AN ERROR"

Mother Nature is the tricky dance partner here; everyone — from North Perry officials to down-drift property owners to government agencies — agrees it's a tough call from year to year whether she's showing up to play nice or get ugly. Madison residents say nature handed off some responsibility to man on this one; North Perry maintains the blame stays with the weather.

"For years, as far back as you can go, the south shoreline of Lake Erie has always eroded. The beach comes and goes," North Perry Mayor Ed Klco says. "[Madison] had a beach there earlier, they lost it. We had a beach, we lost it. That's the way it is."

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