Highland Beach, a historic black town in Anne Arundel County, MD, is washing away into the Chesapeake Bay, giving ground at a rate of more than 2 feet per year.

Bill Sanders on beach

Bill Sanders, mayor of Highland Beach, MD, stands along a section of the town’s shoreline that is quickly eroding into the Chesapeake Bay. 

Leaders of the Maryland town’s government responded earlier this year with a fix: a $1.2 million effort that included widening a key section of the beach and installing stone fortifications just offshore to deflect wave-driven erosion. During a virtual public meeting last February, a consultant displayed photos of the flooding caused in October 2021 by a no-name storm that pummeled the beach with nearly 5-foot-high waves.

“That’s the kind of wave impact that this system should easily accommodate,” said C. Scott Hardaway, head of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science’s Shoreline Studies Program.

But it might not get a chance to do that. The town shelved the project in September after several residents raised questions about the work. Their concerns centered on future maintenance costs and whether the new structures would mar their picturesque views of the Bay.

Town leaders were taken aback by the controversy. The project had been in the works for months, and the public was given several opportunities to provide feedback. But officials say that the criticism didn’t ramp up until after the town submitted permit applications in June to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Maryland Department of the Environment.

“We were truly blindsided eight months into the project,” said Zora Lathan, the town’s environmental consultant and wife of its mayor, Bill Sanders. “Citizens were just so adamantly against the project. They may not be the majority, but they are loud.”

The town returned the $7,500 it had been awarded by the Maryland Department of Natural Resource’s climate resilience grant program. The money was going to finance the project’s design.

Highland Beach had been one of 12 recipients of the funding awarded in July. The town had to absorb the $20,000 it had already laid out in planning costs.

Town leaders had also applied for a $1 million construction grant through the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

But they have since notified the organization that they are no longer seeking the funding.

Lathan isn’t ready to declare the project dead in the water. The community of about 120 full-time residents and 500 seasonal occupants still faces a serious erosion problem, and something needs to be done, she said. Once the narrow strip of sand disappears, the town’s only protection will be the stony barrier that parallels Wayman Avenue, its waterfront drive.

“It’s not only a matter of protecting the beachfront and retaining more sand,” Lathan said. “It’s a matter of protecting the road and protecting the properties along the road.”

History may be at stake, too. The community was founded in 1893 by famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass’ eldest son, Charles, and his wife, Laura, as a summertime refuge from Jim Crow era segregation. Prominent visitors have included writer Paul Laurence Dunbar, poet Langston Hughes, actor Paul Robeson and jurist Thurgood Marshall. This year marks the 100th anniversary of its incorporation as the state’s first African American town.

The community also stands out, particularly amid the hurly-burly of the Western Shore, for its staunch repudiation of dense development. Cottages remain the dominant figure on the landscape. A two-lot minimum for building, being challenged in court, helps keep its bucolic character intact.

Despite the town’s name, much of Highland Beach’s land is low in elevation and vulnerable to flooding caused by storm surges. That is increasingly the case because the Chesapeake has risen by half a foot in the past 30 years and is on track to rise by 1.5 feet over the next 30 years, Hardaway said during his February presentation.

Highland Beach goldenrod

Grant money for protecting the shoreline in Highland Beach, MD, had to be returned after the project met with resistance from some residents, who raised concerns about maintenance costs and disruption of waterfront views. 

Highland Beach’s shore is especially prone to erosion because it faces due east, away from any land on the Western Shore that might blunt the impact of wind and waves, Hardaway said. Having such a long fetch all but ensures the community experiences some of the region’s highest waves during nor’easters.

The beach also cannot replenish itself with sand as it normally would. Barriers constructed decades ago on the land side of the shoreline are preventing sediment from getting washed onto the beach, Hardaway said. The town estimates it has lost 50 feet of beachfront over the past 25 years.

To remedy that, Hardaway had proposed constructing a “living shoreline,” a mixture of stone, fill and plants. The project would add 3,400 tons of rock, 7,000 cubic yards of sand and 15,000 dune plants along a 600-foot stretch of beach.

But as details of the plan grew clearer, some residents’ concerns grew larger. Many who are seasonal residents were chagrined to discover when they returned in the summer that the project was poised to go forward.

“We had questions that we weren’t able to grapple with — what this would look like, what ultimately the maintenance would be, the view of the Bay as we drove by,” said Charles Newton, president of the Highland Beach Citizens Association. “We just felt like we needed more time to digest that.”

The town’s annual budget can’t take too many financial hits, so maintenance costs must be kept to a minimum, he said. During the February meeting, Hardaway acknowledged that sand would likely need to be replenished from time to time, but he said that most projects he has worked on over the years have required relatively little upkeep.

To address complaints about impacts to the view, the town agreed to lower the height of the stone breakwaters by a foot, down to 4.5 feet above the average low-tide level. If the project is to be resurrected, it’s likely that more concessions will be necessary.

(3) comments

Mayor, Town of Highland Beach

I am responding to two comments about the article on shoreline erosion and flooding in the Town of Highland Beach (HB) with reluctance, but in recognition of the need to address continuing misinformation as exemplified in the two posts that followed the article.

Jeremy Cox—who wrote an excellent article for the Bay Journal, especially considering the circumstances—quoted me [Zora] as saying “Citizens were just so adamantly against the project.” I did not state that citizens were “adamantly against efforts to address shoreline erosion and flooding,” as the representatives of the Highland Beach Citizens Association (HBCA) and Beach Erosion and Maintenance Committee (BEMC) stated in their comments about the article (read the article). To say that citizens want to restore and protect the beachfront is a no-brainer.

After several citizens repeatedly and loudly expressed a desire to first “pause,” which then escalated into “cancel” the project—i.e., both the proposal and permit applications—the Town did not believe it could continue the proposed project given the numerous complaints and objections from citizens and damage done to Highland Beach’s reputation to funding and permitting agencies. Unfortunately, these objections were taken far beyond the HB community. We attempted to forewarn residents here about the damage this could do to HB’s reputation, but, unfortunately, our warnings were summarily dismissed. It is disingenuous to state that citizens simply asked for a “pause,” when during the 3+ hours of Zoom meetings on September 10th, as well as prior to the meeting, several citizens, including the heads of the HBCA and BEMC, very loudly expressed a desire to “cancel” the project.

A great deal of outreach, information dissemination, and requests for citizen participation took place from the fall of 2021 to the fall of 2022. This was all well documented for public review and consideration. To state that "the project design was completed and grant applications submitted prior to seeking citizen engagement” is blatantly false. For example, the adjoining project owner requested a major design change in December 2021—after the design and a detailed summary of the proposal was shared with all citizens in the fall of 2021—and her requested change was made within a few days of receiving same (unbeknownst to the Town, she later changed her mind and wanted additional changes). No other changes were requested before July 29th, as far as the Town knew.

After the permitting agencies’ “citizens comment period” started this past June, as part of the permitting process, only then was the Town first notified of numerous complaints, beginning July 29th, more than eight months into the project, i.e., notifications to the Town from permitting agencies, not from citizens with complaints. Again, the Town didn’t receive any notice of citizens’ complaints regarding the Living Shoreline Project until July 29th, over eight months into the project. And notice of complaints was only received by the Town via the permitting agencies, not the BEMC, not the HBCA, nor other citizens. To say the Town was blindsided is an understatement.

To briefly address another comment, which was added December 13th, that disputes the rate of erosion of the beachfront: We checked various sources, including checking twice with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources; and both times they confirmed that the rate of erosion is 2.6 feet per year, according to the Maryland Coastal Atlas. We had already performed extensive research into the rate, and consulted with a noted expert in the field, to determine the rate of erosion. The extent of erosion is visibly evident to residents living here, or coming back to visit from a decade or two ago. But this misinformation continues to confuse residents on the severity of the problem and the urgency of taking action in response to global warming and sea level rise, concomitant with ground subsidence, that exacerbates our erosion problem.

Actually, we are thankful to Mr. Cox that he didn’t dig deeper into the dysfunction in the community. I [Zora] was careful in what I had to say; and contrary to current accusations, Bill was not interviewed for this article; and to my knowledge, Scott’s comments are from his February Zoom presentation. We see no benefit in airing community disputes beyond our community.

Zora Lathan

Former Volunteer Environmental Consultant for Highland Beach

William H. Sanders III, Dr.P.H.

Mayor, Historic Town of Highland Beach

The communities of Highland Beach and Venice Beach are certainly not opposed to a shoreline restoration project. Indeed, we are highly motivated to protect our historic shoreline. However, citizens were expected to support the town’s proposed project without understanding in sufficient detail how the analysis justified the scale —a scale that expected significant sacrifices from the community.

There were also concerns about the erosion rates as determined from Google Earth satellite images. Analysis of erosion rates from satellite images cannot just be based on a couple of selectively chosen satellite images but needs to consider the large variations in shoreline positions due to tides and due to the ebbs and flows of sand caused by a variety of storms.

The analysis also needs to consider the errors in Google Earth geographical coordinates which often vary by several feet or more. Correcting for the errors, linear fits through satellite-determined shoreline positions show shore erosion much closer to half the stated rate (~1.25 ft/year) – which is sufficient to require action, but which gives time for analysis. Also, as confirmed by NOAA coastal flooding maps and photos taken during floods, flooding in this area comes nearly entirely from Blackwalnut Creek and Oyster Creek. The proposed project did not appear to address these main sources of flooding.

The community has formed a Beach Erosion and Maintenance Committee that is currently working to address both beach erosion and flooding using objective analysis and the most current solutions that work with nature.

Research & Technical Analysis Sub-Committee

HBCA Beach Erosion & Maintenance Committee

The article indicates that the citizens of Highland Beach are “adamantly against” the efforts to address shoreline erosion and flooding. This is not accurate. A shoreline restoration is of the highest priority to the citizens of Highland Beach.

Unfortunately, the project design was completed, and grant applications submitted prior to seeking citizen engagement. After numerous concerns were raised to no avail, 61 citizens, a large portion of the town, signed a petition asking for a pause in the project so that the community could become fully engaged. Shortly thereafter, the project was withdrawn by the town.

Understanding the urgency, the Highland Beach Citizens Association formed a Beach Erosion & Maintenance Committee that is already researching and meeting with area experts, government agencies, nonprofits, and other shoreline communities to determine the best way to address our shoreline erosion and flooding.

The committee is taking a collaborative approach and welcomes participation from all Highland Beach citizens, the mayor, and commissioners, as well as from our neighboring communities to the north and south and experts along the Chesapeake Bay.

We appreciate the work that went into the initial proposal and believe that it will be helpful as the committee and our community move forward.

Charles C. Newton

President, Highland Beach Citizens Association

Ron Stokes

Chair, Beach Erosion & Maintenance Committee

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