An Alternative Approach To Threatened Shorelines

The program is remarkable in that residents and government appear to agree that a stand-and-fight approach to the coast will not work in all cases

    In a dramatic move supported by the governor and historical precedent, the State of New York is expanding its post-Hurricane Sandy buyout offer to an entire Staten Island neighborhood. Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Monday that all 129 developed properties in an at-risk neighborhood called Ocean Breeze would be eligible, with prices based on their values before the storm. Some 117 owners already have indicated they will say yes.

    The program is remarkable in that residents and government appear to agree that a stand-and-fight approach to the coast will not work in all cases. Speaking on Staten Island on Monday, Governor Cuomo said, “As many communities who want to participate, we have money.” Those with imperiled houses on the East End of Long Island should pay close attention.

    Ocean Breeze is a low-lying community surrounded by salt marsh, but it is not beachfront; it is separated from Lower New York Bay by Father Capodanno Boulevard, a couple of hundred yards of scrub, and a boardwalk before you get to the water. Nor, with an elevation of about 10 feet, is it even in the worst-rated federal flood zone.

    If enough people agree to sell and move on, the roughly four-block area would be restored to nature. The idea is to remove houses from a danger zone and to create an environmental buffer to protect others. It is a smart, aggressive concept, one that meets the increasing threat to coastal development with eyes wide open. It also stands in sharp contrast to the approach taken here when it comes to thinking about hurricanes, northeasters, rising sea level, and the danger to structures too close to the shoreline.

    Money for Ocean Breeze comes not from Congress’s Hurricane Sandy relief, which unfortunately is turning into a slush fund for ill-thought-out undertakings. Instead, the New York Rising Home Buyout Program is funded by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. This means that in contrast to the armor-first mentality of the Army Corps of Engineers — and those contractors who stand to make money performing the work — a more pragmatic, long-term approach is possible.

    State Assemblyman Michael Cusick, whose Staten Island district was devastated during Sandy, understands the stakes. In a press release this week, he lauded the program, saying that the region is seeing more frequent extreme weather and that Ocean Breeze is “at risk of getting hit hard again by another storm.”

    Also recently, State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. issued a statement calling attention to the danger. “As we pass the one-year anniversary of Superstorm Sandy and pass the two-year anniversary of Hurricanes Irene and Lee, we are reminded of the destruction that was left in the wake of these storms. Storms of this magnitude, which used to be considered ‘once in a lifetime’ occurrences, are happening more and more frequently,” he wrote.

    On the South Fork, where by historical hurricane standards Sandy barely registers, it may be some time before the preponderance of public opinion matches that of residents of the worst ravaged areas. Here, local officials are allowing waterfront residents to expand their houses, which will only increase the cost of any hypothetical buyouts or disaster recovery. At the same time, they are, as in the case of the Dune Road elevation project in Southampton, investing in infrastructure without considering whether it is the right thing to do. At Montauk, current town officials are backing a response to ongoing erosion that seems to date from an earlier era when we understood far less about the forces of nature.

    Unfortunately, when Congress funneled taxpayers’ millions to the Army Corps of Engineers in the wake of Sandy, it all but predestined a retrograde approach. It is up to informed citizens, civic groups, and enlightened elected leaders to recognize that other solutions, perhaps such as proposed for Ocean Breeze, are well worth consideration and may offer the better course for decades to come.