Protect the Beaches

In trying to save their multimillion-dollar beachfront investments, some property owners may actually be harming the beaches, and they are doing so with the help of local officials and the State of New York

    A recent East Hampton Town Zoning Board of Appeals decision to allow the former East Deck Motel in Montauk to be buffered from the Atlantic by a 20-foot-high man-made dune appeared to sidestep several key questions — notably whether the project had adequate scrutiny and whether it might jeopardize the public use of the beach. The work was pitched as a restoration, but on closer look, it is far more than that and points to inadequacies in the law, which would affect how the town deals with such requests in the future.

    Ditch Plain (The Star does not use the “s” on the end of Plain in deference to old maps) has long been the site of considerable erosion. The Montauk Shores Condominium there is embroiled in a battle with the state over a stone sea wall, which apparently was expanded illegally, and waves have been nibbling at the East Deck property, which was bought by a partnership last year for $15 million.

    Paradoxically, the motel itself is not in imminent danger. Rather, the dune, which will replace a natural low bluff over most of the width of the property, will be proactive, meant to help stave off the ocean well before conditions worsen. Unfortunately, the town standard by which the project was reviewed is too lax; it does not take into account the new dune’s potential effect on a popular spot for beachgoers or on marine habitat and down-drift beaches.

    In addition, because the plan called for excavating the existing shrubby bluff, trucking in 6,000 cubic yards of sand and radically altering the coastal landscape, there should have been a more complete study of potential impacts on the upland portion of the site as well. It should be stressed that because the work was not needed to address an emergency, and because requests for additional changes may soon be sought for the site, there is a good chance that the zoning board application was a narrow and improper segmentation of a much larger plan to come.

    The former East Deck property’s anonymous new owners are not alone. In trying to save their multimillion-dollar beachfront investments, some property owners may actually be harming the beaches, and they are doing so with the help of local officials and the State of New York. This is because materials other than beach sand are being placed on eroding dunes and bluffs.

    Residents have begun to notice and ask questions, but they may need to pay even greater attention. During the hearing on the East Deck plan, one member of the zoning board said that previous work at Ditch included the placement of yellow, stone-laden fill, which was only marginally comparable to our billowy South Fork beach sand.

    Time was that local authorities and the state demanded that sand for such undertakings be mined only from the same littoral drift, that is, no bay sand on the ocean beach, and so on. Now, after sources have proven nearly impossible to obtain, the powers that be have allowed glacial till and worse. Some so-called restoration efforts have included material that contained chunks of concrete, brick, even ground-up hardtop tennis court — and this does not appear to bother most officials.

    The effect, though subtle to some, most notably those who are supposed to be watching, is that the quality and composition of some of the area’s beaches are being altered. In downtown Montauk, for example, rocks and stones can been found along the shoreline where almost none would have been a decade ago. This is the result of protecting a row of mostly outdated motels whose economic value to the community is debatable. Most of the jobs they provide are low-wage and seasonal, and many of the dollars flow out of town as quickly as they come in. Meanwhile, one of East Hampton’s most treasured natural assets could be diminished. And, if and when the East Deck dune is undermined, the material will end up in the ecosystem and under people’s beach blankets.

    The solution clearly is not the path most property owners and public officials would prefer. Nevertheless, East Hampton and other shoreline communities should stand and fight. They must adopt a policy of retreat and/or condemnation for threatened structures, combined with a beach-first mentality. Private houses, motels, and the like benefit the few; beaches are for the many, for all of us. The entire philosophy on coping with erosion must change — and fast — if remaining near-pristine shores are to be saved. It starts and ends with the sand.