On the 28th anniversary of Hurricane Gloria’s landfall on Long Island, the Village of East Hampton’s Zoning Board of Appeals held a second, lengthy hearing to consider whether or how to allow an oceanfront homeowner to protect her property from extreme weather events.
Molly Zweig of 11 West End Road, had already conceded in her efforts to keep a pole-mounted camera that would monitor the ocean and her adjacent property. But as her attorney, a representative from an environmental consulting and marine construction company, and the clerk of the East Hampton Town Trustees delivered multiple and lengthy presentations, the board was still asked to approve a proposal to remove an existing stone groin and construct a sand-covered rock revetment on the beach in front of her property. The state Department of Environmental Conservation has issued a tidal wetlands permit but, as the proposed action would affect the dune, the zoning board must also issue a permit in order for the work to proceed.
Stephen Angel, of Esseks, Hefter, and Angel, came armed with a United States Supreme Court decision as he sought to nullify a claim, made in the previous hearing on Sept. 13, that the town trustees have jurisdiction over the area in question. “The reason for this application was avulsion,” Mr. Angel began. “A cataclysmic series of acts — Irene, Sandy, a couple northeasters — chunked out portions of the shoreline in this area along the ocean.” Avulsion, he said, does not change title to property. “A big storm came in and it chunked out a piece of your property, the title to the property that you lost in the storm stays with you pretty much forever. The only property you lose along the shoreline is property that’s eroded.”
Mr. Angel, citing a 1998 decision written by Supreme Court Justice David Souter involving a dispute between New York and New Jersey, quoted from the decision. “ ‘We have long recognized that a sudden shoreline change known as avulsion, as distinct from accretion or a gradual change in configuration, has no effect on boundary,’ and that, ‘This is the received rule of law of nations on this point as laid down by all the writers of authority.’ ” There is no question, Mr. Angel said, that Ms. Zweig has title to the area in question. “We’d like to get this resolved so there’s a possibility we can do this work as soon as possible.”
“Why do they have to take the rocks away?” asked Christopher Minardi, a member of the board. “It seems like a lot of digging close to the shore.”
Aram Terchunian of First Coastal, an environmental consulting and marine construction company in Westhampton, answered. “We look at the current status of the stone groin,” he said. “Because it wasn’t attached to anything behind it except for the dune, as dune was removed during the storm, the back side of the groin became exposed and is starting to disintegrate from the back forward, not from the seaward side backwards.” It is in a state of disrepair, he said, and is not functioning as designed. It was designed, he said, to be integrated into a revetment so that waves would “focus on the rock, on the head of the groin, and be dissipated as they approach the shoreline. When you remove this really important element — this revetment attached to the groin — its effectiveness drops close to nil,” he said.
Would the stones forming the groin be reused in the revetment, asked Lysbeth Marigold, of the board. Yes, Mr. Terchunian said. Additionally, “because it’s become so dislocated from the original line of the structure . . . it can be exposed to wave action. It could present a potential hazard to people walking down the beach or bathing on the beach.” Removing it would have very little impact, he said. “We’re digging into sand and replacing that area with sand.” The new revetment would be located a substantial distance landward, he said. “On balance, we end up with a much-improved situation and our impacts are very little.”
Diane McNally, the trustees’ clerk, addressed the board. She agreed that the board is not charged with property title decisions, but the trustees often must address the issue. The trustees, she said, want to “let the public know that we are still . . . struggling to ensure that the public’s property is protected. That’s what I was elected to do.”
“The passion that you see surrounding this application is not unique,” Ms. McNally said, noting that the East End of Long Island has been seeking a solution to moving shorelines for many years. “Most of the conflict revolves around a soft solution, which is sand, versus a hard solution, which is rock revetments or wooden bulkheads, etc. At this point, no definitive answer has been reached by any particular entity.”
What is known, she said, is that the experts who drafted the town’s comprehensive plan and Local Waterfront Revitalization Program, “which restricts erosion-control efforts on the ocean beaches to the addition of sand,” are supportive of repair or replacement of existing shoreline hardening structures. “To repair or replace what we know has already been damaged along our shorelines is fine,” she said, but new shoreline-hardening structures should be approved only after much deliberation. “Although there are a significant number of them throughout the village area, this particular site is not hardened. I would ask you to please reach out to some of the other entities and agencies that have been doing research on the shoreline,” she said, rather than rely exclusively upon the testimony of Mr. Terchunian, whose firm would perform the work.
Ms. Zweig’s house is not in imminent danger, Ms. McNally said. True, it is in an area that has sustained erosion in recent storm events, but “allow those experts . . . who understand shorelines to consider an alternative before jumping to the worst-case scenario.”
It is a complex issue, said Frank Newbold, the board’s chairman, “but to risk someone’s personal property on a wait-and-see contingency does not seem fair to the homeowner, quite frankly.”
Ms. McNally agreed, citing “the heart-wrenching angst of being that upland homeowner who’s watching the water come toward your house.” On the other hand, she said, “What would one expect if they buy something that’s adjacent to a waterway?” Rock revetments did not protect the houses behind them from Hurricane Gloria, she said. A revetment will merely “offer some short-term protection, but on either side of the rock revetment you’re going to have scouring. Somebody is going to be impacted somewhere. . . . I don’t want see anybody’s home fall in the ocean, either. But there has to be a way to find that balance so that we can ensure the public’s property is still protected so we have a public beach. If we don’t have a public beach, we don’t have an economy anymore.”
The question, the board’s Craig Humphrey summarized, is whether this work is necessary. “Can you see erosion at the shore side of that groin?” he asked Mr. Terchunian. “I understand it’s four feet under sand.”
The answer was no. Further, Mr. Terchunian said, “In our discussion with the D.E.C. on this application, they were adamant that they wanted to see that groin removed. . . . Their position was, when originally proposed and built, it was part of a unified shoreline protection system.” That system was only partially constructed, he said, and is not providing the intended level of protection. “Therefore, as we adapt the original design to what we’re dealing with today, that groin becomes superfluous and has potential negative consequences.”
Ms. McNally reminded board members that the town is authorized to enact more stringent rules than state guidelines, and has done so in the past. “The state is not looking at it as we are,” she said. “This is our community. . . . What’s the impact on the neighboring property? What’s the impact on the public property?” Again, she asked the board to look to local authorities and gather its own data so that it would have a thorough understanding of the proposed action’s effects.
Mr. Newbold said that the board is prepared to move forward, and would aim to issue a determination at its next meeting on Friday, Oct. 11.