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In Sandy-battered beach towns, new boardwalks are top priority

A surfer walks past a portion of the

A surfer walks past a portion of the Long Beach boardwalk that was destroyed by superstorm Sandy. Coastal communities still struggling to resume life face an urgent problem of replacing boardwalks, for many a source of revenue, in time for the 2013 beach season. (Nov. 18, 2012) Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

Coastal areas of New Jersey and New York that lost their boardwalks to superstorm Sandy's surge are racing to rebuild them in time for tourist season -- in some places, without wood.

For reasons both practical and environmental, some communities are proposing to replace their wooden boardwalks with more durable synthetic materials or even concrete. That is raising objections from those who say nothing else looks, feels or even smells quite like a true wooden boardwalk.

In New York City, where Mayor Michael Bloomberg had already decided wooden boardwalks don't cut it anymore, a group from the Coney Island section of Brooklyn called Friends of the Boardwalk sued last year to block a plan to replace wooden boardwalks with concrete and plastic.

"When hurricanes come through, they don't ask whether it's concrete or wood," said Todd Dobrin, the group's leader, not convinced concrete boardwalks would withstand a storm any better than wood. "They destroy whatever is in their path."

While "Under the Polymerwalk" might not have the same ring to it as the Drifters' 1960s hit "Under The Boardwalk," New York City parks officials say concrete sections of boardwalk in the Rockaways and Coney Island did hold up much better when Sandy hit in late October.

Bloomberg has long wanted to move away from the tropical hardwoods, harvested from endangered rain forests, that were used to build many boardwalks.

That is an issue Tim Keating, director of Rainforest Relief, has been working on for years. He says coastal communities will be under pressure to quickly rebuild but urges them to resist the temptation to use tropical wood such as ipe, which is cheaper than synthetic materials and popular for its durability. Belmar is considering ipe for its boardwalk reconstruction.

Keating says durable synthetic materials are the best choice for boardwalks. Many beach communities on the Jersey Shore already use them.

Manasquan, N.J., for decades has paved its beachfront walkway with asphalt. Yet that, too, gets trashed by major storms. A 1992 nor'easter smashed large sections of it, and Sandy wrecked about half of it.

Whatever communities decide, they need to do it soon. For many shore towns, boardwalks are their summertime economic engines, where tourists and residents alike spend their money on food and drinks, or on games of Skee-Ball or balloon darts to win a stuffed animal.

In these towns, even in the many noncommercial sections where boardwalks are merely a non-sandy way to get from place to place, not having one is not an option. They will need the tourism money this summer more than ever as they try to rebuild homes and other infrastructure.

Seaside Heights, like several other Jersey Shore towns, is soliciting bids to rebuild its boardwalk. The mayor estimates it will take $10 million to $12 million. The Federal Emergency Management Agency will reimburse towns for 75 percent of those costs, but local governments first must front all the money themselves, forcing many to borrow.

Belmar, N.J., Mayor Matthew Doherty is confident his town's boardwalk will be replaced before Memorial Day. "If we rebuild this boardwalk, we'll have plenty of tourists," he said. "And then people will be complaining about parking."

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