The Mast-Head: Tuesday Wisdom

The challenges of communities living with our mostly eroding shorelines

What passes as a positive sign on the national front is when the headlines in the morning and the terrible thing that led the news when you went to bed are the same. Risk and scandal have seemed to come quickly in the last few months, with a fresh outrage presenting itself at almost every turn of the clock. 

So it was a fine break from all that this week when I drove over to Southampton to speak to the Tuesday Club, a group of about 20 or so retired men who get together to share a meal and talk. For whatever reason, I had not heard about the club until East Hampton Village Mayor Paul F. Rickenbach Jr. invited me to attend and suggested that I talk about the challenges of communities living with our mostly eroding shorelines.

The tension between fortifying private property for the few and preserving beaches for everyone else was, I told the club as we waited for our salad course, the single biggest issue that will confront local officials in the years ahead. Airport noise, affordable housing, drinking water, the environment are important and have their vocal constituencies, but the beaches here are pretty much the whole deal. Lose them in a significant way, and much of the vacation home economy goes away, too.

The situation in downtown Montauk, I told them, was a taste of trouble to come. Instead of condemning and eliminating the roughly 10 motels and residences along the ocean using money appropriated by Congress for Hurricane Sandy relief, East Hampton Town took the shortsighted course, going along with the Army Corps of Engineers in a project that has already come at the cost of the public beach. The time had come, I said, for a new agency, one less in love with building bulwarks, to replace the Army Corps.

The way the Tuesday Club works is that a guest speaker lays out a topic and the group runs with it. Solutions to the dilemma I posed included one man’s saying that stone or steel fortifications were a good thing, others favoring a tax district to raise money for putting sand where a beach used to be, and another spoke approvingly of offshore barriers he had seen in the Mediterranean to block wave action. 

A notable proportion of the group liked letting houses fall into the drink, telling their owners, too bad, you were stupid to buy there in the first place. The sense was that not shifting the burden to taxpayers to cover the cost of others’ follies would be far less expensive over time. This was the kind of bare-knuckle wisdom one hears from older people, and it made my ride over to Southampton on a busy work day well worth the trip.