As most anyone who has walked on the bay or ocean beaches here in the last week or so will attest, the past few decades’ development of our shoreline has finally, inevitably, run smack up against the almighty, eternal power of Mother Nature. That the challenges presented by the dual threats of intense coastal storms and rising sea level are daunting is an understatement. Dealing with the policy implications and the delicate balance between the public’s right to access the shore, the rights of private-property interests, and the interests of taxpayers will be incredibly difficult.
As of this writing, details are few regarding a plan being prepared by an ad-hoc, volunteer committee for downtown Montauk. What has been said in public is that the Montauk oceanfront-hotel owners — very understandably desperate, and fighting for survival — want millions from the federal government’s Hurricane Sandy relief bill to build a sea wall, which would then supposedly be kept covered with sand paid for either through a special taxing district or in some form of public-private partnership.
Making the notion of a Montauk wall appear tempting, however, is an estimated $750 million in post-Sandy money now set aside for the Army Corps of Engineers’ Fire Island to Montauk project. Though the corps has said that widening the beach and increasing the height of dunes may be the way to go, the funding from the relief bill will be spread over an 83-mile stretch — and will not last forever. At any rate, “hard” solutions, such as a wall or dune with a rock core, as may be in the so-far withheld committee plan, are not likely to gain regulatory approval anyway after the required environmental analysis is completed, so the sooner that idea is scrapped the better.
Now, this wall-and-sand concept might work. But, then again, it might not. It will take better minds than ours — or those of any amateur — to determine if it would be the best choice. Which is why we believe the East Hampton Town Board, which chose the unpaid committee members, should immediately consult the very best academic and independent experts on coastal processes (and studiously avoid any of the snake-oil peddlers who now make a fine living from one scheme of “beach restoration” or another).
Beyond Montauk, town agencies have, meanwhile, been handing out so-called emergency permits for work on private revetments and bulkheads at a rate that makes thorough environmental review of their impacts impossible.
And then there are the town trustees, who are said to be looking into whether their authority has been usurped in some cases. It’s a mess, and no one appears to truly be in charge.
Would condemning the shore-most row of Montauk structures and replacing them with a resilient dune line prove a more effective and beneficial plan for the future of that hamlet than building a wall? Until the experts are heard from, we just don’t know.