A four-foot-wide mahogany boardwalk running through the Atlantic Double Dunes in Amagansett brought the Nature Conservancy before the East Hampton Town Zoning Board of Appeals on Tuesday night.
The conservancy, which owns the property off Further Lane that the boardwalk passes through, has applied for a natural resources special permit to sanction the 620-foot walkway, which has already been built. However, there are lingering questions about whether the boardwalk should be allowed at all on the property, which contains primary dunes, freshwater wetlands, and beach vegetation and extends all the way to the beach.
The boardwalk serves two adjoining parcels — one to the north, owned by Windsor Digital Studio, and one to the east, owned by the art dealer Larry Gagosian, according to Richard Whalen, the Nature Conservancy’s attorney. The Nature Conservancy gave permission for its neighbors to reconstruct the boardwalk, but did not secure the building permit.
According to Mr. Whalen, there was a boardwalk and some semblance of a pathway to the ocean in the same location for more than 70 years. Aerial photographs from 1938 onward “show the same path, however it is not possible to say with absolute certainty from any of these photographs whether the bare area shown is (a) just sand without a boardwalk; (b) a boardwalk; or (c) sand covering the boardwalk,” Mr. Whalen wrote in his submission to the zoning board.
There are five separate lots in the vicinity, he said, and between them, there could be three legal access-ways to the beach. As it stands, all of them share the boardwalk over Nature Conservancy property.
Mr. Whalen characterized the reconstructed boardwalk as an “in-kind” replacement of what had been there previously, with “new wooden boards that are the same width as the boards that were replaced.”
There was controversy over the deeds to the Nature Conservancy parcels, and whether or not they allowed for building on the land. Also, Larry Penny, the town’s director of natural resources, disagreed with Mr. Whalen, saying that aerial photographs he examined from before construction of the current mahogany walkway did not show a boardwalk.
At the hearing Tuesday night, Mr. Penny said, “I went through the photos, dating back to 1983, and only one photo showed a part of a boardwalk, the others didn’t show anything.” In 2009, Mr. Penny inspected the property for invasive species; he did not see a boardwalk at that time, only a “sandy path,” he said. When he noticed the mahogany boardwalk, he alerted town authorities of an illegal structure, as he could not locate a permit for the reconstruction, he said.
Jonathan Sobel, the owner of a parcel west of the property in question, said that deeds granting the land to the Nature Conservancy state that the parcels should “be kept forever in their natural state without any disturbance of habitat or plant whatsoever.” There is an easement for the northern property owner, Windsor, for beach access; however, Mr. Sobel said it is only over the first of the parcels donated to the conservancy, which is not part of this application and allows for a boardwalk “only within its easternmost 10 feet.”
Under town code, a coastal structure may be placed at any location on a lot if the structure and its associated uses are not detrimental to any natural resource. Mr. Sobel asserted that the boardwalk is ineligible for a natural resources permit, as it passes through a protected area of beach vegetation. Additionally, he said that if this application is approved, more boardwalks will be built, and the cumulative results will be devastating to the dunes.
Brain Frank, a town planner, evaluated the boardwalk in question and did not find any negative impact to the dunes. “I’ve been to the property, looking for signs of degradation that would affect the Planning Department’s recommendation, and there aren’t any visible now,” he said. While Mr. Frank agreed with some of the speakers that “a proliferation of boardwalks would be a concern,” he said this one was not problematic.
The board closed the hearing, but will continue its discussion of the application at an upcoming work session.