An Erosion Fight on Two Fronts

Opponents say rock armor requested on bluff lot is ‘illegal’ under town law

    Yet another potentially precedent setting application regarding a coastal erosion structure came before the East Hampton Town Zoning Board of Appeals on Tuesday, this one for a rock revetment on bluff-front property just east of the Shadmoor State Park in Montauk.
    To protect his house, which was moved back from the bluff in 2003, John Ryan of Surfside Avenue wants to construct an approximately 100-foot-long by 10-foot-wide stone armor revetment with cedar terracing along the west side of an eroding stream channel that runs perpendicular to the oceanfront bluffs. The project would involve regrading along the channel. To facilitate this, Mr. Ryan needs a natural resources permit and a variance from the town’s coastal erosion overlay district regulations to construct a revetment in an area where the construction, placement, or installation of new coastal erosion control structures is prohibited.
    The proposed revetment is partially seaward of the state-designated coastal erosion hazard area boundary. In addition to the bluffs, Mr. Ryan’s property contains freshwater wetlands, beaches, and tidal wetlands. Mr. Ryan received a coastal erosion hazard area and tidal wetlands permit from the State Department of Conservation in December.
    Before the 2003 move, his house had been 15 feet from the coastal bluff crest. It was moved to the northwest section of the property and was reconstructed after sustaining damage when 12 feet of bluff slumped.
    On Tuesday, Philip Gamble, chairman of the zoning board, received a letter from Carole Friedman, a land management assistant at the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation, requesting additional time to comment on Mr. Ryan’s application for a natural resources permit. “Due to the environmentally sensitive nature of this bluff and other factors we would like to receive a copy of the construction plans for our engineers to review,” Ms. Friedman said in the letter.
    According to Drew Bennett, an engineer for Mr. Ryan, this is a slope stabilization project necessitated by severe erosion from storms. “There is a gully side on his property that’s unstable and is slumping off in chunks.” He said the erosion “is not being caused by waves or currents, it’s stormwater erosion.” Also, Mr. Ryan claimed that his plan to add 100 feet of angular rocks and vegetation has been successful in stabilizing these types of soils elsewhere.
    The proposed work is on the property line, and as Mr. Ryan has “already retreated once, he has nowhere else to go,” said Mr. Bennett. The runoff comes from about 20 acres in the nearby Surfside Estates area, as well as roads, wetlands, and other residential lots.
    The Town Planning Department questioned in its environmental assessment form whether or not Mr. Bennett had considered other alternatives, and wondered if the proposed rock revetment could slump off in the future.
    “We considered smaller stones or adjusting the channel itself, the best sites are on state property, where we don’t have authority to go,” said Mr. Bennett. “We’re focusing on stabilizing the soil, which is slumping off in chunks and liquefying off the hill.” When asked if the rocks would roll, Mr. Bennett said they are “on the slope, angular, and anchored to the hillside itself. We don’t expect it to move in the foreseeable future.”
    His strategy is to “pin the toe, which is the outside edge of the channel, and begin to soften and stabilize the slope as you go up the hill.”
    There were several speakers opposed to the application who expressed concern over the long-term effect of the structure, and questioned its legality.
    “This application calls for use of three to five-ton boulders that I believe will eventually end up on the beach,” said Jay Levine, who lives in Montauk and is a member of the Surfrider Foundation and the Concerned Citizens of Montauk. “The engineer said they won’t move for quite a few years. I wonder, Mr. Bennett, what happens after a few years? What liability does a property owner have for these boulders on the beach, and what is the liability with East Hampton Town?” he asked.
    According to Mr. Levine, the revetment along the west bank of the creek will likely cause erosion on the east side of the creek, the boulders will be undermined and fall in, and there will be deleterious effects on the state park. Also, citing town code, Mr. Levine said that this type of revetment is prohibited unless it is to provide safe navigability in boat channels.
    Also opposed to the plan, Thomas Muse, who lives near Surfside Avenue and is the environmental coordinator for the Surfrider Foundation, homed in on the legal aspects of the application. “It appears this is a request for an illegal action in East Hampton Town. This property falls in that district where these structures are prohibited. It should be easy for the board to reject this application on that alone,” he said.
    In response, Mr. Gamble said, “If you read the entire substance of that particular requirement, they’re talking about jetties or groins.” To which Mr. Muse replied, “The toe of this structure, in my estimation, is going to interact with wave action. You can split hairs whether this is on the beach or not, but it’s close enough to the beach. There used to be a staircase, that is now detached from the cliff and waiting to fall down. The evidence of how things go out there is there.”
    “This project is designed to fail. It’s a young stream, very V-shaped, it cuts the channel, the sides slump in, over time, the channel erodes and carries sediment down the beach,” said Mr. Muse. He claimed that the rocks will end up in the stream channel and make their way down the beach, and questioned if the wetlands will be destroyed. “I would request there be an updated wetland flagging. We have rare and federally protected and endangered species in that park. Chances that they’re in that bluff are fairly high,” said Mr. Muse.
    Bringing recent events into play, Mr. Muse referenced a lawsuit involving a private homeowner on the north side of Montauk and East Hampton Town, and wondered why the town would get involved for a private residence. Mr. Gamble replied, “If we were to worry about lawsuits, then we’d never do any applications. There are risks with anything. That’s why we have engineers. New York State wants to give input and has vested interest in this particular area. What if it comes to a conclusion different than what you’ve stated, what do you do then? Ignore New York State or go for the engineers’ report?” he asked.
    “We need to put weight on this decision, and the policy of coastal management,” replied Mr. Muse. “The town, by approving this application, will be handicapped in the future. If we open this door, we need to look at our whole coastal policy, and that is bigger than this whole application.”
    According to Jeremy Samuelson, an environmental advocate with Group for the East End who also works closely with Concerned Citizens of Montauk, Mr. Bennett said there is potential for undermining slope stabilization, and maintenance may be required. “This is essentially a take it or leave it position. The applicant has truncated the review process. It’s supposed to be a coordinated review, but if that was the case, New York State Parks and East Hampton Town would have been notified at the same time. The New York State Office of Parks wouldn’t have had to submit an 11th-hour letter requesting more time for review,” said Mr. Samuelson.
    He also reminded the board that the approval for the D.E.C. permit was given far in advance of when the application was submitted to East Hampton Town. He suggested exploring alternatives that could meet the applicant’s needs while minimizing impacts.
    “I respectfully ask that the Z.B.A. . . . look at alternatives that may exist. The needs and desire of the applicant must be balanced with those of the community,” said Mr. Samuelson. “This is the first application for the Z.B.A. of this kind in an area where it is expressly prohibited. We don’t even have a letter from the town engineer rendering an opinion. I’d ask the board to reach out to your engineer, just as we’re reaching out to New York. We’re moving too quickly here. There is protocol to embrace.”
    At the request of Mr. Samuelson, the record will remain open so that Rameshwar Das, who wrote the town’s local waterfront revitalization plan, can comment on the application, and so New York State will be able to respond, as well.
    The board will revisit the application in late September.