Having their “private” beach made public was what seemed to most rankle shoreside residents of the Soundview section of Montauk during a meeting on Friday with officials from the Army Corps of Enginners, the State Department of Environmental Conservation, and East Hampton Town.
Representatives of the Corps had come to the Montauk Firehouse to brief residents on their two-pronged plan to keep the Montauk Harbor Inlet navigable — that is, free of sand shoals — and to engineer and maintain a protective beach at Soundview. This, they said, would be accomplished with periodic dredging, by digging “deposition” trenchs, and by building three short groins made of geotextile.
According to the Corps preferred plan, sand would be periodically dredged and pumped from shoals that form in the inlet and from two deposition trenches. One, 17 feet deep, would be located along the length of the east jetty on the inside of the channel; a bigger trench, with a volume of 50,000 cubic yards, would extend from Gin Beach out to just beyond the northern extent of the east jetty. The navigational portion of the inlet would be dug to 17 feet, as well.
Harvested sand would be pumped west to the depleted beach at Soundview (which is now, in large part, underwater). That beach would be broadened to approximately 120 feet and maintained at that width by sand that had been “backpassed” — that is, recycled — from the three small groins, which would hold back the sand that is now carried into Fort Pond Bay by tidal currents.
The Corps envisions the backpassing operation being repeated every five years, with dredging every eight years.
An alternative plan, which would impact navigation only, would call for the creation of the deposition trenches and a shorter, five-year dredging schedule to dig the channel to 12 feet; it would not include the small groins and would not resupply the beach at Soundview.
The preferred plan’s maintenance cost would be spread over 50 years, for a total of $41 million. The federal government would contribute $36 million, the state almost $4 million, and the town $1.6 million.
Then came the sobering news.
Any plan for an engineered beach, paid for by taxpayers — such as that called for in the Corps plan of first choice, which would maintain the beach at Soundview, in addition to dredging — must be accessible to the general public. Beach-access points would be required every half mile, and parking areas would need to be provided, as well.
Members of the Soundview community in attendance at the briefing included Terry Bienstock, party with 10 other residents to a lawsuit filed last week against the Army Corps as well as the state, town, and federal governments. The suit claims that rock jetties constructed privately in the 1930s, but improved under the auspices of the Army Corps beginning in 1949, are the cause of erosion that has endangered their houses. The plaintiffs want the beach rebuilt and maintained.
“I lost 60 feet in one year. The jetty caused the problem. There has been rapid acceleration of erosion. They put a road block. The traffic got deverted,” Mr. Bienstock said, using a metaphor to describe how the jetties interrupt the flow of sand from east to west, sand which, he contended, would otherwise form the beach at the Soundview and Culloden Shores communities. “It’s not natural,” Mr. Bienstock said.
Steve Couch, chief of the coastal section of the Corps planning division, said the question of whether the loss of sand was natural or manmade lay at the heart of the lawsuit filed by the waterfront property owners. He said that while the exact cause was in doubt, the plans being presented were an attempt to solve the effect.
“Should we move? The amount of taxes we pay for two or three months’ basis is huge. The town needs to understand: Let us use our money to fix this. We’ll leave if we have to give up more, give to the public after years of paying taxes,” said Carol Lang, another Soundview resident.
She was referring to the fact that town law prohibits the construction of stone or steel structures as a buffer to waves that, in the absence of a beach, drive headlong into and around wooden bulkheads and eat into the few remaining dunes. Mr. Bienstock complained that the town, the owner of the inlet jetties, would not even permit homeowners to truck sand to Soundview from what appears to be a surplus at Gin Beach, on the jetties’ east side.
Residents told Army Corps representatives that their property values would plummet if the revitalized beach in front of their houses were made public, and that any attempt to claim their property through eminent domain, to create beach access, would be fought tooth and nail.
Mr. Frank said after the meeting that the question of beach ownership was a complicated one that depended in part on the property owners’ deeds.
“We bought on the water. We’re big girls and boys. But now public beaches, too? We’ve put [in] almost a million dollars per home because the town wouldn’t do anything,” Mr. Bienstock said.
Residents asked how the project could go forward if the town’s Local Waterfront Revitalization Plan does not allow groins of the kind the Army Corps was preposing (a question that is, as yet, unclear). Brian Frank, the town’s chief environmental analyst, said, “If this is part of a managed beach, we would work with the Department of State to reconcile it.”
Mr. Bienstock said: “This plan has a 1-in-100 chance. Best case it will take six to seven years.”
There was no doubt in anyone’s mind about one thing: That without Army Corps intervention — come, as it may, with the bitter medicine of public beach access — the future of the community is in jeopardy.
“We have reached a fork in the road,” Mr. Frank said.
Before being implemented, any plan must first be approved by the East Hampton Town Board. Mr. Frank said public hearings on the subject would be held after the Corps public-comment period closes on Aug. 3. The town’s approval would be forwarded to the state, and then to Congress. Without snags, a plan might reach Congress in April of 2014.