Harbor rehab boosts tourism in Cape Charles
The harbor in Cape Charles, Va., had not been properly maintained since its initial construction in the 1960s because it did not generate enough revenue to fund its upkeep. By the mid-1990s, the harbor’s boat slips were falling apart, the wooden bulkheads were collapsing, and the water and electrical systems were only partly operable. A harbor rehabilitation project appeared daunting, but town leaders pressed ahead once the Virginia Port Authority agreed to fund about 75 percent of a $1 million upgrade.
Now the community of 2,000 residents has rehabilitated its harbor to generate revenue and to better serve the needs of recreational boaters and commercial watermen. Town leaders believe that, with infrastructure improvements and proper amenities, the harbor will create new revenue from docking fees and gasoline sales, and attract boating-based tourists to the town’s restaurants, stores and lodging centers.
In 1997, a three-man engineering scuba team conducted an underwater assessment of the harbor. The team found the structural integrity of the bulkhead system beyond repair. Sinkholes were forming behind the bulkhead causing adjacent service roads and utility poles to collapse. Town leaders performed a lifecycle cost analysis to identify the best replacement materials and then prepared the master plan.
“We decided to create a mixed-use harbor that would serve both recreational boating and commercial fishing,” says Cela Burge, Cape Charles’ town manager. “We then had to consider what future harbors would require. Will they need infrastructure for cable television? For computer data ports? Once we felt we had the proper vision, we developed a master plan. That has been critical in guiding us. Particularly in small towns, where political transition occurs fairly regularly, master plans help keep projects moving forward. When leadership turns over, projects can bog down if there isn’t an established plan of action.”
To create a new bulkhead and docks, about 1,030 linear feet of wooden decking and pilings had to be removed. A marine contractor began replacing the old bulkheads with vinyl sheet piling, timber wales, fender piles, tiebacks and dead-man piles. Construction then began on a new pier for additional boat slips, as well as on water and electrical systems, storm drainage inlets and a roadway leading to the harbor master facility where fuel is sold.
Cape Charles’ original harbor accommodated 15 boat slips. The new harbor, completed in April, provides slips for 51 boats. Most slips include access to potable water and marine-grade utility pedestals providing 30-amp and 50-amp electric service. The harbor perimeter features new pavement and a timber boardwalk.
The greatest challenge to the harbor project was permitting. Because the harbor is in a National Historic District and a World Biosphere Reserve, numerous agencies — including the state Department of Environmental Quality, the state Marine Resources Commission, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — had regulatory oversight. In addition, because the harbor was long ago designated by the Corps of Engineers as a harbor of refuge, town leaders and Corps officials had to work out a new agreement relating to the accommodation of distressed vessels.
Cape Charles’s new harbor already is drawing more — and larger — boats, bringing many people previously unfamiliar with Cape Charles to the community. The old harbor generated about $24,000 annually in docking fees, gasoline sales and miscellaneous revenues. Town leaders expect the new harbor to generate about $60,000 annually.
This article was written by Steven Pophal, senior project manager for Orlando, Fla.-based PBS&J.