Town Gives Seawall the Go-Ahead

Officials ask opponents to support long-awaited Fire Island to Montauk project
The transformation of the ocean beach in downtown Montauk into a construction zone for a sandbag seawall has sparked ongoing protest and civil disobedience resulting in the arrest of 14 so far. Joanne Pilgrim

A sandbag seawall being built to armor the downtown Montauk ocean shore will be completed, East Hampton Town officials insisted Monday, despite a swell of vehement protest that arose after work by the Army Corps of Engineers got under way early this month.

Fourteen people had been arrested as of yesterday morning for refusing to leave the oceanfront work sites. Despite their acts of civil disobedience, as well as rallies, petitions, and an email campaign, which have continued almost daily since Nov. 5, officials said in a press release that the $8.4 million Army Corps project would continue.

The release included statements of support from New York State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. and outgoing County Legislator Jay Schneiderman, who was just elected Southampton Town supervisor, in addition to town board members. 

Town officials have “listened carefully to the numerous, passionate concerns raised in response to the commencement of construction activity,” the press release said, but see “no basis upon which to halt this project.” The town board, it says, “fully supports completion of this interim protective measure until the completion of the Fire Island to Montauk Point Reformulation Study,” which is referred to by the acronym FIMP. 

Tuesday’s meeting began with a moment of silence for victims of the recent Paris attacks. At the close of the meeting, Susan Vitale called for a moment of silence for Montauk. The room grew quiet and still for an extended period.

Opponents had asked Supervisor Larry Cantwell and the members of the town board, who signed off on the federal project last year, to retract support for the 3,100-foot, 15-foot-tall “dune” of sandbags, which is to be covered with three feet of excavated sand. Town officials have said they asked the Army Corps to consider a sand-only approach to no avail.

Protests grew as the beach excavation and pile driving for wooden access walks got under way. The sandbag wall, opponents say, will result in the loss of the beach seaward of the wall, as well as increased erosion to either side of it.

The Army Corps has endorsed a beach nourishment program as part of its longer-term FIMP project, for which an updated draft is due in February, but federal, state, county, and town officials all endorsed the sandbag wall, calling it short-term protection for Montauk’s downtown motels and other buildings.

At Town Hall on Tuesday, opponents of the project flooded a town board meeting and expressed disappointment. An online petition against the project has 3,500 signatures, Jay Levine of Montauk pointed out. Several offshoot peti ions are drawing signatures as well, he said. “. . . You’re turning your back on the community, those you pledged to serve.” 

“I think we’ve been paid lip service instead of a sincere effort in trying to stop this project, which was the mandate of most of the people who spoke at the last hearing,” Lou Cortese of Montauk’s Ditch Plains Association, said.

“Several eminent coastal geologists have said this project will end up with no dry beach,” Thomas Bradley Muse, one of the plaintiffs, along with the environmental organization Defend H2O, in a lawsuit seeking to stop the project, said at the meeting. A decision on a request by him and other plaintiffs for a temporary restraining order is expected shortly. An injunction is thought unlikely after a magistrate judge issued an opinion against it. 

 Mary Lynn Miller, a Wantagh resident who vacations in Montauk every summer, also spoke on Tuesday, questioning whether a sandbagged shore would be a draw for tourists. “It’s the unspoiled nature of Montauk that attracts us,” she said. 

Mr. Cantwell told the town board’s critics that extensive conversations with state and federal officials had taken place in response to the community opposition. But, he said, “There is no cooperative way to stop this project. There is no pause button.” Should the town try to press the issue, Mr. Cantwell said, it would “be put in an undesirable position with respect to the ultimate project, which is a sand-only solution.”  

“It’s either this option or nothing,” he told the roomful of opponents on Tuesday. “From the board’s point of view, that’s not a tenable option.” He went on to say the board does not “want to do a project with this much opposition, but at this point in time, there’s really no other option.”

In the press release, Mr. Cantwell said, “It can’t be emphasized enough that the current project is an interim protective measure until . . . the long-term stabilization solutions can be implemented. We will do everything in our power to cooperate with our federal, state, and county partners and strongly advocate that the preferred sand-only stabilization project be authorized, funded, and implemented as soon as possible.” 

“The consequences of pulling out of it are long-ranging and significant,” Town Councilman Peter Van Scoyoc said, noting that the town would be responsible for charges already incurred by the contractors. Trying to pull out, he said, would “cripple our relationship with the Army Corps, which we rely on for what I think we all agree is the best solution for downtown Montauk.”

Mr. Van Scoyoc implored the audience to join the board in advocating an expedient start of the long-term project. “We really need the community to speak as one voice, demanding to keep the pressure on, moving up the chain,” he said. However, he acknowledged that the FIMP project had been in the works practically since he was born. Dominique Olivia Garsten, a downtown Montauk business owner, then commented, “So it’s like a unicorn.”

“Whether we like it or not, whether we get what we want in the FIMP project is somewhat dependent upon this project,” Mr. Cantwell said. “I think Montauk gets priority . . . if this project goes forward.”

“We’re now learning to respect nature. But in Montauk, the Army Corps is trying to intervene and change things and force nature into the way it wants,” Bill Crain said. “The beach has been raped,” Diana Walker said. “And it’s unnecessary, and it’s going to come back to haunt all of us.” 

“I feel it’s a Montauk emergency right now, that that beach is getting cut up day by day by day,” said Sarah Conway, who was among the first protestors arrested. “Stop this project; it’s not impossible. Our beach is being destroyed. Our faith in democracy is being destroyed,” she said, to a standing ovation. “Are you representing us, or are you representing your own views?” she asked the board.

Contractors for the Army Corps of Engineers will continue construction of a sandbag seawall, and several walkways over it on pilings, on the downtown Montauk beach, town officials said this week, despite vocal opposition by residents, surfers, and environmentalists, including Kevin McAllister, below, of Defend H2O. Joanne Pilgrim, Morgan McGivern, Tom McMorrow Photos