Need Seen For Post-Storm Recovery Plan

Long-term strategy over crisis-based approach
Russell Drumm

    Serious beach erosion in Montauk following two recent severe storms, and the installation of concrete rings in the sand in front of the Royal Atlantic motel — an effort to protect the building until its foundation could be rebuilt, which is distinctly at odds with East Hampton Town’s coastal laws — prompted a vigorous discussion at a town board meeting on Tuesday about efforts the community should take to prepare for the next oceanic assault.
    “It is time for the town to take a stronger stand for those who have to protect their businesses and private property,” said Laraine Creegan of the Montauk Chamber of Commerce. “It is disingenuous to suggest that to retreat further inland is a viable alternative for existing hotels and motels. There is nowhere to go.”
    Alice Houseknecht, an owner of the East Deck Motel at Ditch Plain, said that storm flooding “totally engulfed my backyard . . . the ocean came storming in,” damaging her electrical system and other items.
    “It is contingent upon us who own along the beach to constantly replenish the dunes,” she said. But, she said, “The idea of simple sand replenishment and strategic retreat is not working.” Hard structures buried in sand are needed, she said. “Sand alone costs hundreds of thousands of dollars and it can get washed away in one night.”
    Buildings along the shore such as hers offer protection from flooding to others further inland, she said, adding that for individual property owners to bear the cost of shore replenishment is “really unfair.”
    “Please, could we work together?” Ms. Houseknecht asked.
    Robert DeLuca, the president of the Group for the East End, said that East Hampton Town’s comprehensive plan calls for the development of a “hurricane mitigation plan,” or a post-storm recovery strategy that would articulate in detail the steps to be taken following storm damage.
    He stressed the importance of having such a plan in place before a crisis hits. “If you do it that way, all of the issues that come to the fore after a storm like this have a place to go,” he said. “Unfortunately, elected officials are constantly faced, the day after a storm, with people wanting to make things whole.” In that situation, he said, it is difficult to make rational decisions, “because you don’t necessarily have something that says, okay, these are the first six things that you do.”
    With a specified plan, he said, the town would more easily qualify for post-emergency state or federal funds.
    “We did dodge a bullet. There is an opportunity here,” Mr. DeLuca said, to lay out an accepted course of action before another storm comes “and everybody’s back here trying to figure out, one piece at a time, what we do.” Other coastal communities have done so, he said, and their plans could serve as models.
    Rameshwar Das said that East Hampton’s Local Waterfront Revitalization Program plan, of which he was a principal author, “establishes the priorities, as far as emergency work, and what you can do.”
    The document calls for a hurricane recovery plan as well. The town began one, he said, under the McGintee administration, but when money ran out, instead adopted a more generic “hazard mitigation plan” prepared by Suffolk County.
    Grant money, up to $300 million, he said, is available to municipalities for storm recovery projects. Funds are also available for the preparation of a recovery plan.
    Mr. Das said that scientific information has evolved in the years since the town’s waterfront plan was written, and it could be due for an update. “I don’t think we’ve faced up to the realities of climate change and sea-level rise, and what that means for the coastline,” he said.
    “These people can’t retreat,” Town Supervisor Bill Wilkinson said of waterfront motel owners. “So if the discussion were to boil down to, fortify or retreat . . . ‘Let it fall in,’ I’m  against it,” he said. “I personally understand that the downtown Montauk business district contributes $10 million a year to our taxes.”
    “We have a code, and the code actually mandates retreat,” Councilwoman Theresa Quigley said. “Our current code doesn’t have the ability to protect the structures. You can dump sand, but the sand just washes away in the storm. Is that appropriate? I don’t think that’s appropriate.”
    “The L.W.R.P. was adopted many years ago to protect our coastline and our beaches, which are public assets,” said Jay Levine, a member of the Surfrider Foundation. “[It] precludes revetments and other shore-hardening structures to protect individual properties,” he said, because such structures scour sand from other properties nearby.
    “The Royal Atlantic has installed a structure which seems to be in direct violation of the L.W.R.P.,” he said. “It’s the town board’s responsibility to enforce our laws, whether they like them or not.”
    “It’s being reviewed,” Mr. Wilkinson told him.
    Mr. Levine said that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, in a recent briefing on Sandy, acknowledged that climate change is occurring and will continue to result in extreme storms, and that the public must decide what should be rebuilt, and what should not. That comment, Mr. Levine said, was “a watershed moment, politically.”
    Why, Mr. Wilkinson wondered, do the restrictions in the town’s L.W.R.P. differ from those imposed by the state Department of Environmental Conservation? That agency has issued permits for things not permitted by town law — the Royal Atlantic’s hard coastal structures, for instance. “The D.E.C. should be going by what we say,” Mr. Das said, complying with the town’s state-approved L.W.R.P.
    Keith Grimes, a Montauk contractor who is often called on to install stone coastline armoring and the like, said that the current town code forces a waterfront property owner facing severe erosion to either “stand by and watch a manageable situation turn into a personal disaster,” or to “go outlaw.”
    The town, he said, should allow hard structures, either permanently or temporarily, should begin a “sand recovery program” to build up the dunes, and should grant one official the power to assess an emergency situation and determine what a property owner should be allowed to do.
    “You can’t just protect one property, and screw up your neighbor’s property,” said Bill Akin, a member of Concerned Citizens of Montauk. “You have to look at the implications of these things.” This is a “defining moment” for the community, he said, when both immediate and long-term situations must be addressed. Creative thinking and consideration of all the options — raising up the motels and putting parking underneath, for example, creating new dunes, or arranging land transfers for “retreat” — is key, he said.
    “These are emotional issues; there’s no way around it. We’re talking about people’s livelihoods. We’re talking about their property,” said Jeremy Samuelson, the executive director of Concerned Citizens of Montauk, who had raised an alarm about the Royal Atlantic’s erosion-control efforts. “We need to begin a planning process that offers the community opportunity for input.”
    Among the questions to be asked, he said, are whether retreat is an option. The process should also consider whether to pursue underground electric lines, a downtown sewer district, the elevation of structures to comply with the latest FEMA guidelines for flood zones, or creating an engineered beach which, if necessary, could be rebuilt after a storm with federal money. And it should look at the economic and environmental impacts of any actions taken.
    Until that occurs, Mr. Samuelson said, in a fact-based process, “we’re just spitting in the wind. We’re continuing to react in an ad hoc, one-off manner to a situation that is not stabilizing, it is getting worse.”
    Councilman Peter Van Scoyoc urged a “careful approach” in order to preserve the beaches that draw tourists here.
    “This community’s got to wake up,” Steve Kalimnios, an owner of the Royal Atlantic, said at the meeting Tuesday. An interview with him appears separately in today’s Star. At the Tuesday meeting, he reiterated his belief that a downtown Montauk property owners’ tax district should be created to raise money for beach replenishment. “We’ve been hemorrhaging money to put sand on the downtown beaches. That’s what my family has been doing,” he said.
    The L.W.R.P. calls for establishing a Montauk erosion-control district, Mr. Das said. Mr. Wilkinson said that he had already met with Mr. Kalimnios, and spoken with New York State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr., about the district, but offered to make some calls to gauge support.
    In the short term, Councilwoman Sylvia Overby suggested, the board could work to clarify emergency procedures, perhaps modifying them to temporarily allow hard structures.
    “If you could protect your property without impacting your neighbor’s property, that would be great,” said Bob Stern, a member of C.C.O.M.’s board. “Let’s investigate scientific solutions, and let’s get together as a community, and not yell at each other. Let’s discuss this rationally,” he said, prompting applause.
    Thomas Muse of the Surfrider Foundation, another speaker, asked the board to form a coastal advisory committee, which is called for in the adopted L.W.R.P. That group could begin gathering information, he said.
    “I’m scared for my town,” said his wife, Nancy Atlas Muse, citing the recent destruction in other Long Island towns. “I want it to exist. Hard structures breed erosion. It’s all or none. We either have to have a wall in front of everything, or we have to have a plan. You can’t win with the ocean.”