Rethinking The Montauk Shoreline

It is critical to understand that there is no consensus here about what to do

    The Army Corps of Engineers’ options for downtown Montauk and its beaches are just not good enough and will only pass the problem on to future leaders and generations. Moreover, the prospect of a multimillion-dollar undertaking using money approved by Congress for Hurricane Sandy relief gives rise to questions about the ethical, perhaps even legal, basis on which the plans are based.

    Even though the Army Corps is under the impression that East Hampton has reached agreement on how to proceed, it is critical to understand that there is no consensus here about what to do. The town board has not voted, nor has there been much official discussion. If there is to be public participation in decision-making, residents must demand loudly to be heard. And be heard they must. Simply hoping elected officials will come to their senses is not enough. The only sensible path is to slow down and call in the most qualified independent planning and coastal-process experts. There is no indication that town officials are considering this, which makes public pressure downtown Montauk’s only hope.

    The fault is not necessarily with the Army Corps; it does what it was set up to do, that is, build walls — and sometimes not all that well. Rather it is a long-term failure of vision and guts. This is made worse by local officials’ being sold on a wrong-headed direction by those who stand to benefit economically. What is needed is not advice from those who know how to move sand around, but top-level community planners able to re-envision the area so that it will be both commercially viable and resilient to the sea for a generation or more.

    Downtown Montauk’s problems have their origin in the ur-developer Carl Fisher’s ill-fated decision to site the commercial center of the hamlet where it should not have been. The hotels and shops are on a low, narrow isthmus between the ocean and Fort Pond. Indeed, a motorist on the Montauk Highway today can look toward the Atlantic and see breaking waves at tire level. It was a dumb place to put a commercial center in the first place and the choice seems all the more foolish now, knowing what we do about the shore.

    Montauk’s predicament is also not really the result of Hurricane Sandy, Hurricane Irene, or any of the recent years’ northeasters. In fact, the landward migration of the shoreline has gone on more or less unimpeded for decades. Nonetheless, Montauk restoration would share in the money Congress appropriated for hurricane relief. It is troubling to reflect on this at a time when other areas suffered far more serious losses during Sandy, leaving many people broke, still without homes, or inadequately compensated by flood insurance.

    What should have been an important basis for the proposed work — an economic assessment prepared at Town Supervisor Bill Wilkinson’s behest — is an amateurish, overstated hodgepodge without meaningful citations to back up its claims. And, worse, the supervisor has refused to make it available to those who have asked. From a copy we have seen, it appears the report was written by the First Coastal Corporation, which specializes in beach engineering projects and, as such, is hardly a disinterested party.

    Other attempts at backroom dealing have poisoned much support for the process. As it turned out, Mr. Wilkinson agreed only begrudgingly to allow residents to attend a recent presentation by the Army Corps, preferring, by his own admission, to be briefed privately.

    East Hampton Town cannot evade the question of whether it is appropriate for United States taxpayers’ money granted for Sandy relief to be used on what is essentially a false premise. At the very least, East Hampton owes it both to Congress and the American people to make sure that the millions in aid is spent responsibly. It would be deeply embarrassing, even immoral, if, 10 or 20 years from now, the town again had its hand out, essentially conceding that it failed the first time around.

    To be clear: Unless the public is ready to pay for expensive and unending sand-pumping from offshore sources, seawalls will inevitably result in the loss of the beach. By definition, seawalls are only installed in areas subject to beach loss; no one would bother otherwise. And without sand replenishment, there will be no beach. Take a look, for example, at the illegally expanded rock edifice defending the Montauk Shores Condominium just east of Ditch Plain. The result has been the loss of free passage along the shore — something that is supposed to be assured by the state’s public trust doctrine.

    If there ever was a moment to think big, this is it. Montauk’s long-term solution could well include a combination of approaches, including one that has not been mentioned so far. This would be for the town to creatively use the power of eminent domain to remove the first row of downtown Montauk’s residences and outdated hotels, and to give their owners the right to rebuild inland, in particular on the second block in from the beach.

    Consider that much of this area contains vacant or underutilized lots; one even has been given over to a municipal rest room. But wait, you say, what about the businesses already there? There is an answer for that, too. The owners of these retail properties could return to their original locations in new, modern spaces on the ground floors of the rebuilt hotel and residential complexes, all of which would be built to the highest hurricane-proofing standards and environmentally sustainable design.

    In the place of the former first row of developed properties, the Army Corps could build a high, protective dune, to be crossed at reasonable distances by walkways from an elevated boardwalk linking the new commercial downtown to a wide, gorgeous beach. It would be, in fact, somewhat like what Fisher had envisioned in his 1920s master plan, only this time taking the ocean’s ongoing threat into account.

    Conceding that this is a back-of-the-napkin concept, we nonetheless believe that such a radical project would buy not just 10 or 20 years’ protection at an ongoing and unknowable cost, but perhaps 50 or 75 years or more at an initially high, but limited cost. It would, frankly, be better for all parties concerned, not the least of whom would be tomorrow’s taxpayers, who would not have to pay to forever dump sand on top of today’s mistakes.

    It could happen this way or it might take another direction, but it is up to residents to make sure that everyone understands the stakes. What needs to happen is a very focused and guided public identification of costs, impact on property owners and the environment, and long-term maintenance expenses followed by a clear, systematic articulation of the community’s agreed-upon goals — and only then a decision. Thinking small will produce no answers.