A committee convened by East Hampton Town to address issues of coastal erosion — what to do, immediately, to save threatened waterfront sites, particularly in Montauk, and how to plan for the future — jumped in on Jan. 7.
Right away, erecting snow fencing along the dunes could help to capture and retain blowing sand, Councilman Peter Van Scoyoc, a liaison to the group, said at a town board meeting the next day. That would be just a first, and relatively easy, step in a series of actions discussed by the committee, Mr. Van Scoyoc said. They included temporary and long-term measures that could involve mining offshore sand to rebuild beaches, raising shorefront buildings to federal standards, or a major beach renourishment project to create an “engineered” beach expected to be able to withstand the onslaught of the wind and sea for a certain number of years.
Mr. Van Scoyoc said that with the recent Congressional release of money for Hurricane Sandy recovery efforts, including money to be distributed to municipalities by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the committee will focus on obtaining emergency permits for restoration work on the Ditch Plain and downtown Montauk beaches.
Drafting an environmental impact statement for longer-term work in downtown Montauk, such as pumping sand onto the beach from offshore, will take a back seat.
“This is an enormous problem,” said Ed Braun, a member of Concerned Citizens of Montauk, at the town board’s Jan. 8 meeting. “We should look at this as an opportunity for satisfying the desires of both environmental interests and commercial interests,” he said. “None of us win if there is no beach.”
“We need your help to elevate this conversation,” he told the board, to keep it from becoming adversarial.
Supervisor Bill Wilkinson introduced the subject by saying that he wanted people to understand “the economic impact of the ‘retreat’ philosophy on the downtown business district . . . that there is truly an economic impact of these establishments on the shoreline.”
Mr. Wilkinson said that for every $1 spent at a Montauk motel, there is $8 to $10 spent at other downtown businesses, and that downtown Montauk property owners contributed $10 million in school and property taxes. He did not cite the source of that information, nor respond to an e-mail requesting a citation.
“It’s an interesting dynamic; it’s a dynamic between property value versus those that have a greater priority on the environment,” he said on Jan. 8.
“It’s clear that the business economy and the health of the beaches are inextricably linked,” Councilman Van Scoyoc said. A wide, sandy beach is what draws visitors, he said. With the effect of erosion “on a lot of levels, we’re really gambling now; we’re playing Russian roulette,” he said.
At the meeting of the coastal committee, he said, “there was broad and general agreement that restoring the beach in front of the Montauk business district was a goal that everyone could agree on.” Though there are other “hotspots” of severe erosion throughout the town, he said, the group decided first to focus on Montauk, and had discussed short-term, medium-term, and long-term strategies.
But, Mr. Van Scoyoc said, “There has to be an acknowledgement that sea-level rise would obliterate any short-term or medium-term fixes. So that has to be in the back of our minds, as well.”
Councilwoman Theresa Quigley said that she had hoped that the committee would research current town and state regulations to ascertain what actions are allowed in emergency situations of severe erosion. “We’re trying to figure out what the code provides, and I haven’t seen a clear answer to that,” she said.
Mr. Van Scoyoc said that the town code and East Hampton’s state-approved Local Waterfront Revitalization Project plan specify that only “beach-compatible” sand, or geotextile tubes filled with sand, may be put on ocean beaches under any circumstances; no hard structures are allowed.
“Are we okay with emergency measures to protect properties?” Councilman Dominick Stanzione asked. “The immediate preservation of property is paramount to the next paramount issue, which is protecting the beach,” he said. “Property owners want a liberal interpretation of what they can do, temporarily, given the emergency.”
“What are we considering allowing an owner to do under such adverse conditions?” Mr. Wilkinson asked. “We have a long winter, as well as spring approaching. What do you do, what are we going to allow . . . these other places to do in the case of a storm?”
“What emergency powers does the board have, or the supervisor have, or the committee have, to allow somebody on the beach in downtown Montauk to keep their building standing?”
“The context is a larger plan for coastal erosion planning,” Mr. Stanzione said, “so that we don’t want to take any action in an emergency that won’t be part of a longer-term plan.”
Mr. Stanzione suggested having the coastal committee come up with ideas, and then have them vetted by John Jilnicki, the town attorney, as to legality.
If the board wants to allow property owners to take actions beyond what is called for in the town code, Mr. Jilnicki said, it will “run into the problem of the [waterfront revitalization plan].” The plan is the product of a years-long community effort to craft coastal policy in sync with state dictates, land-planning parameters, and scientific projections regarding erosion.
“I want to know over the next three months whether we can amend that procedure or that law,” Mr. Wilkinson said.
Mr. Stanzione questioned what would happen “if we find, in an emergency, that those measures are inadequate, and we have property owners who are not willing to sacrifice their properties to the inadequacy.”
“What complicates the issue is that no oceanfront property lives in a vacuum,” Councilwoman Sylvia Overby said. For instance, she said, she would like an engineer’s opinion of what effect the installation of concrete septic rings on the beach in front of the Royal Atlantic in Montauk might have had. Though Mr. Wilkinson and others have cited them as saving the building from destruction by the surf, the beach level drops by several feet nearby, Ms. Overby said.
In addressing both the pressing and long-term problems, Mr. Braun said, the board cannot allow anything to be done “that is in tremendous conflict with phase two or phase three.”
“That’s my concern with putting in hard structures on one little reach of beach,” Mr. Van Scoyoc said.
The coastal committee is to meet again on Monday. Among the tasks on its agenda, Mr. Van Scoyoc said, is reviewing coastal engineering information from local and other experts, and actions taken in neighboring municipalities as well as other areas of the East Coast.
Mr. Van Scoyoc said earlier this week that, though the town’s L.W.R.P., anticipating the effects of sea-level rise and increasing erosion, called for a series of proactive actions, there was a period of time when East Hampton was spared severe storms — a lull during which the issues now facing our coastal community remained in the background.
Now, he said, “When we see what happened to the west, and think about it happening here, it brings it back to everybody’s mind.”
“We have to keep in mind that any solution can’t be one-sided,” he said. However, he said he is “ultimately on the side of preserving the public beach.”