The united call from a number of South Fork environmental groups that the Town of East Hampton proceed no further on coastal policy until at least one top expert has signed on as an adviser is welcome. Post-Hurricane Sandy, East Hampton has been among many shoreline communities rushing to rebuild and reinforce damaged property, in many cases without taking the time to be sure the work will not do more harm than good over the long term. East Hampton Town has fast-tracked scores of permits, and more are headed to the zoning board of appeals for review. Even if the Planning Department were fully staffed, it would be hard-pressed to keep up and not make mistakes, which makes us wonder about how the depleted and brow-beaten staff in its Pantigo Place offices have been able to fulfill their role.
Town board’s attention has been centered on downtown Montauk, where several hotels and residential complexes are increasingly threatened by erosion. Property owners there, backed by Town Supervisor Bill Wilkinson, favor using rocks to build a seawall of some kind close to their foundations. Such work is banned in the area by the town’s own Local Waterfront Revitalization Program, and they want it amended.
One property has already been fortified by a long line of concrete septic rings, which were supposed to be temporary, although a precise time span was not specified. Even with State Department of Environmental Conservation approval, these rings were of questionable legality — and what was worse, they were not studied for their impact on the beach, neighboring properties, or the environment. As experience shows, where shore-hardening structures, such as rocks, bulkheads, or septic rings, are placed, the public beach quickly narrows, or, in some cases, actually disappears.
Downtown Montauk is not alone by a long shot in being in harm’s way. Nor is it the most threatened portion of the town’s coastline. Beaches were sharply eroded by Sandy and the subsequent winter storms in many locations. These include most north and east-facing stretches, such as along Soundview Drive and Captain Kidd’s Path in Montauk, Mulford Lane at Lazy Point, Gardiner’s Bay in Amagansett, and Gerard Drive in Springs. You can expect property owners in these places and others to pay very careful attention to just how far things are allowed to progress in Montauk.
Town board Republicans have made it clear that they would like to allow the affected Montauk owners to do whatever it takes to fortify their properties, the public right to the beach be damned. Mr. Wilkinson and Councilwoman Theresa Quigley favor letting the Army Corps of Engineers lead the way without the town’s seeking another opinion. And Councilman Dominick Stanzione has expressed doubt about hiring an expert whose views might differ from that of the Corps — the same organization that has taken nearly 50 years to complete the much-heralded Fire Island to Montauk Point Reformulation Study and brought you the Hurricane Katrina disaster. If that is the kind of expertise the town is being offered, we say no thank you.
Coastal policy is the big enchilada for East Hampton Town, the 600-pound gorilla, the whole kit and caboodle. It is not something residents can trust to an anonymous federal bureaucracy or accept in the lack of the best-qualified experts and deliberate study. Mr. Wilkinson, Ms. Quigley, and Mr. Stanzione’s apparent abdication of this complex responsibility may be perhaps the most damaging legacy they will leave unless they change course immediately, call in the best available professionals, and embrace policies based on science and the entire community’s interests.