Town Board Moves to Ease Building Restrictions

Two 47-foot patrol boats ferried representatives of the Coast Guard, State Legislature, Army Corps of Engineers, and East Hampton Town into the Montauk Harbor Inlet on Friday to show them what they couldn’t see, and, they hoped, couldn’t feel — a sand shoal that has made it dangerous for Montauk’s fishing fleet and the Coast Guard’s search and rescue boats to get in and out of the harbor.

The tour was not long, but it seemed to elicit a new commitment from officials to come up with a fix. “I’m confident we can get it done,” Representative Tim Bishop said during a post-tour conference at the Montauk Coast Guard Station.

This winter’s storms have accelerated the flow of sand from the east side of the harbor’s jetties into the inlet, increasing the shoal. The storms, and down-drift scouring from the jetties, also are blamed for worsening the already serious erosion of beach and dune to the west. The erosion has spawned a multi-million-dollar lawsuit by residents of Montauk’s Soundview community.

Among those on Friday’s tour in addition to Mr. Bishop were Rear Admiral Daniel A. Neptun, commander of the Coast Guard’s first district, State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr., East Hampton Town Supervisor Bill Wilkinson, Councilwoman Julia Prince, Joseph Olha and Stephen Couch of the Army Corps of Engineers, and Senior Chief Jason Walters, commanding officer of the Montauk Coast Guard Station. Capt. Bill Grimm and Capt. Richie Jones, commercial fishermen representing the Inlet Seafood group, also attended, pointing out the danger they, and other mariners, face.

The inlet was last dredged in 2009 and was not scheduled to be worked on again until 2013. “It’s obvious the timetable will not suffice. The survey indicates that shoaling has accelerated. It’s our challenge to work with the Army Corps to identify funds so dredging can take place in 2011,” Mr. Bishop said.

Mr. Bishop said the corps had “responded immediately” once it learned of the danger and the impact on the fishing fleet. However, he cautioned: “This is not a lay-up. It will mean a reallocation of Army Corps funds to deal with this emergency.” He said the cost of the emergency dredging would be “north of seven figures.”

“It’s imperative it gets done in 2011,” Assemblyman Thiele said. He added that he had introduced a bill to spark a state response, which included matching funds to increase the depth of the channel. Mr. Thiele said it was important to have the corps dredge the inlet at least two or three feet deeper than previously to account for the “dynamics of storms,” and to add the extra sand to the eroded beaches to the west.

“If we can make the connection between a government expenditure and saving jobs, it will help. The landings of fish between Shinnecock and Montauk are greater than in Boston,” Mr. Thiele pointed out.

“It’s important to know we can lean on the federal and state. They have been here and are responsive to the erosion and safety problems,” Supervisor Wilkinson said. “If our fishing boats don’t get into port and go to Rhode Island to [pack out] we lose on the economic level.”

Mr. Olha showed the group a bathymetric survey of the inlet, completed last week. It confirms that the shoal stretches from the east jetty near the harbor mouth to the south and west into the center of the channel, where the depth has decreased from 12 feet, as shown on charts, to just 7 feet in places. And it shows that the shoaling has created an extremely narrow navigable channel.

He said it was estimated that dredging the shoal to 12 feet would remove between 12,000 and 16,000 cubic yards of sand. An additional 3,500 cubic yards could be removed if a deeper channel were authorized. Mr. Olha said the State Department of Environmental Conservation would have to approve an increase beyond the 1,000 foot length of the beach to the west of the inlet, the current limit of approved beach restoration.

Bonnie Brady, executive director of the Long Island Commercial Fishing Association, asked if the Army Corps could also look into “leaks” in the inlet’s eastern jetty, which, she said, seems to accelerate shoaling.