Perched at the Edge

Ravaged by storms, oceanfront owners await help
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The owners of oceanside resorts in Montauk are asking East Hampton Town what they will be permitted to do to save structures that face increasing danger from coastal storms. Russell Drumm

    On Monday, as another northeast storm moved up the coast toward Long Island, Senator Charles Schumer called on federal agencies to stop dawdling and make good on the their promises to provide disaster assistance so that beaches ravaged by the Dec. 27 storm can be “remediated.”

    Mr. Schumer said he was imposing a 90-day shot clock to create a finite review period for communities so reimbursements and remediation can take place before the next storm. “While FEMA [the Federal Emergency Management Agen­cy] reviews and reviews and reviews, Long Island beaches and coastline continue to disappear,” the senator said in a release.

    Money promised after a November 2009 storm and a March 2010 storm has been allocated, but not delivered. Last week, FEMA representatives, and those of the state’s equivalent agency, as well as Army Corps officials toured the South Fork to calculate damage from the Dec. 27 storm.

    A tally of damages is required before an emergency declaration is made and federal money can flow. This tally had not been completed as of Tuesday.

    Don Caetano, FEMA’s deputy director for external affairs, answered Mr. Schumer’s challenge this way: “According to current law, any construction projects that are funded by the federal government are required to comply with environmental and historic preservation standards. We’ll do everything we can to ensure that these projects can move forward in an environmentally sound but expedient way.”

    An incident related to federal response occured on Monday when commercial fishing boats were forced to wait up to seven hours for a tide high enough to allow them to enter Montauk Harbor. The inlet is being blocked by a storm-driven sand shoal. The much-needed dredging of the inlet awaits a $2 million Army Corps study not expected to be completed for two more years.

    Even if the requisite declaration stemming from the Dec. 27 storm were to come today, exactly how, if at all, it would be used to fix and protect eroded beaches remains unclear. Therein lies the rub, said Vinod Saggi, owner of Montauk’s Ocean Surf Motel, whose foundation was exposed by the Dec. 27 storm.

    Mr. Saggi and other shoreside motel owners in Montauk as well as homeowners in the hamlet’s north-facing Soundview community have been paying out of their own pockets to replace sand as a stopgap measure to protect their properties.

    “They have been studying for 40 years and there’s no decision yet,” Mr. Saggi said, referring to the Army Corps ong-awaited Fire Island to Montauk Reformulation Study, meant to offer a comprehensive approach to dealing with erosion along the South Fork’s south shore.

    That study does not address the needs of north-facing beaches, but the Corps’ Montauk Harbor study does. Both are long overdue.

    Following Hurricane Earl’s close shave last fall, the Corps presented the Montauk community with a draft seclong-awaited Fire Island to Montauk Reformulation Study, meant to offer a comprehensive approach to dealing with erosion along the South Fork’s south shore.

    That study does not address the needs of north-facing beaches, but the Corps’ Montauk Harbor study does. Both are long overdue.

    Following Hurricane Earl’s close shave last fall, the Corps presented the Montauk community with a draft section of the reformulation plan aimed at protecting the hamlet’s low-lying business district from storm surge, but with only   $3 million worth of sand. The plan was roundly criticized as misinformed and insufficient by residents, East Hampton officials, and Senator Schumer.

    The plan called for replacing lost beach, and for a limited number of rock revetments covered by trucked-in sand, but with no timetable. At the time, Town Supervisor Bill Wilkinson said the reformulation study should have been called the Fire Island to Hampton Bays study because its draft form gave the east end of the study area such short shrift. The effort, begun in the 1970s has thus far cost over $20 million.

    Meanwhile, the Dec. 27 northeaster nearly toppled Montauk’s motel row, and now owners want rocks to protect their buildings at least until a long-term solution is found.

    “The larger motels have gone to court to get relief, to get some stones, but they’re getting nowhere. Everybody is paying from their own pocket for sand. All governments are broke.” Mr. Saggi added that replenishing the beach should be a government responsibility.

    “It’s a public beach. Tourism, the beach, is our major source of revenue. It’s not my beach, it’s public beach. We need just a little flexibility to allow a stone retaining wall on our property.”

    “Two things we have to do,” Mr. Saggi said. “We should have permission for stone revetments, and in addition have state, federal, or county put money into sand for the beaches.” He suggested that the 2-percent tax collected on real estate transactions over $250,000 for the five East End towns’ community preservation funds might be used to pay for the rebuilding of Montauk’s beaches.

    Both Supervisor Wilkinson and State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr., an author of the C.P.F. legislation, which expires in 2030, said the fund could not be used to restore beaches unless a property had been purchased with C.P.F. money to begin with. 

    At virtually the same time Mr. Saggi was expressing his opinion on Monday, members of the Long Island chapter of the Surfrider Foundation, environmental advocates, were telling the town board that rocks or any other form of hard structure should continue to be banned from ocean beaches, as specified in the town’s Local Waterfront Revitalization Plan.

    “Erosion is not an emergency. It’s been going on for millions of years,” said Thomas Muse, an environmental adviser with the group. He said there had been a groundswell of concern among the organization’s members “that the board may be easing up, feeling badly for these homeowners, these business owners. But this is not an emergency. This is Long Island. This is what happens.”

    Eugene Alper, also a Surfrider member, who was not speaking for the group, added: “If it comes down to private property versus the beaches, the beaches win in the public’s eye. The long-term solution calls for retreat,” he said referring to the concept of moving threatened buildings beyond the ocean’s reach. “There’s no two ways about it. It would be a much cheaper fix to use public funds to buy those buildings.”

    “The L.W.R.P. does not allow for rocks on the oceanfront except with a variance,” Larry Penny, the town’s director of natural resources, said on Tuesday. But, the State Department of Environmental Conservation, with authority over coastal protection, seems more disposed toward allowing rocks, Mr. Penny said.

    Should the Army Corps’ final plan recommend sand-covered stone revetments plus a rebuilt beach to hold back the ocean in front of Montauk’s downtown, private property owners would still have to receive zoning variances.  

    “Part of this [town] administration would go for rocks covered with sand, but we would like the Army Corps to finish the [Fire Island to Montauk Reformulation] study. Those foundations are so close, they’re going to fail in the not-too-distant future. I think we’re in serious trouble,” Mr. Penny said.