Time Running Out on Waterfront

Resident pleads with Z.B.A. to leave sandbag revetment to save his house

Nothing less than the long-term viability of waterfront houses on Gardiner’s Bay is in the hands of the East Hampton Town Zoning Board of Appeals, according to an attorney and contractor representing a Cranberry Hole Road, Amagansett, property owner, and while the long-term solution is an erosion control district, in which a large-scale beach nourishment and dune reconstruction project would be undertaken, an existing sandbag revetment should be allowed to remain between a house and the beach for as long as five years. 

That was the message delivered to the board at its July 17 meeting by representatives of Nigel Curtiss of 393 Cranberry Hole Road.

With Gardiner’s Bay lapping ever closer to Mr. Curtiss’s house, “I don’t know if it’s going to be here next year, in 10 years, next week, or even tomorrow,” Richard A. Hammer, the attorney, told the board. “These things are very tenuous under the current situation.” 

The hearing, Mr. Hammer said, was “an opportunity for us to begin a discussion of one of the single most important issues affecting this particular stretch of coastline: the sustainability of approximately 30 houses” between the Devon Yacht Club and the defunct fish processing factory at Promised Land. 

But the house is in a coastal erosion hazard zone where erosion structures are prohibited, a prohibition based, Mr. Hammer said, on the absence of any such existing structures when the zone was established. “However,” he said, “even in the Planning Department’s own analysis, it documents a loss of 44 feet of protected dune land.” Historical aerial photographs, he said, indicate that the property has lost around 110 feet of protected dune in front of it since about 1962. 

The town’s Building Department issued an emergency permit allowing the revetment’s construction in September 2017, under a provision allowing sandbags for up to six months with the possibility of a three-month extension. 

“It was pretty much already known that we would be requesting some form of relief on this property absent some large, comprehensive solution,” Mr. Hammer said. “It just wasn’t known exactly when we would be here. I will guarantee that unless we take a more long-range view of these issues, pretty much all of the adjacent properties will be in front of you . . . for more permanent relief from the town code to protect their houses before they’re obviously consumed by the bay.” 

The applicant needs immediate protection of his house, Mr. Hammer said; the sandbag revetment is “a placeholder” to provide some protection pending a long-term solution. 

That solution, said Aram Terchunian, a coastal geologist and owner of First Coastal, a Westhampton Beach consulting and contracting company, is a beach nourishment project akin to that conducted by his firm on the ocean beach in Sagaponack, which he said had been successful. 

Hard structures in the waters at the fish factory, where oceangoing vessels once docked in deep berths, are responsible for erosion at Mr. Curtiss’s property and others nearby, Mr. Terchunian said. He referred to a “classic jetty-inlet situation, without the inlet,” in which a hard structure interrupts the natural movement of sand, building up beach in one location while eroding it in others. “This caused the entire system to be thrown out of equilibrium,” he said. 

Adding sea level rise to the equation, “An unprotected dune and doing nothing spells catastrophe for this entire stretch,” he said. “Mr. Curtiss is just one of the first in that line.” 

In his experience, the creation of an erosion control district, beach nourishment, and dune reconstruction would span five years. “We’re looking at doing an erosion control district,” he said. “But we have to survive between today and when we can implement a project like this.” 

But Brian Frank, the town’s chief environmental analyst, offered the board a different perspective. Many of the town’s regulations exist to protect the beaches. “The town code identifies beaches as the signature of the town,” he said, “and, without me using hyperbole, uses the language that they are perhaps the single most important economic assets of the town.” 

This, he said, is why erosion control structures are a concern. A revetment such as Mr. Curtiss’s “results in accelerated erosion in front of the structures, and results in flank, or scour, erosion at either end.” That, in turn, prompts adjoining property owners to install their own structures. “This domino effect proliferates and results in extensive areas of beach loss,” Mr. Frank said. Mr. Curtiss’s application, he said, does not meet the town’s standards for an erosion control structure. 

Scour erosion at either end of the revetment was evident after each of the northeasters of last winter and spring, Mr. Frank said. “You have a loss of resource. This is what the town’s regulations against coastal erosion structures are intended to prevent: the permanent and irretrievable loss of resource. And if you have this thing sitting here for the next five years, I don’t see how you’re going to mitigate those impacts over that time period.” 

The emergency permit granted Mr. Curtiss last year “was to put a Band-Aid on that problem and prevent somebody from losing their house while a more long-term solution was developed,” he said, “ideally before the end of that six or nine-month period, not coming to you at the end of it here.” 

Mr. Curtiss bought the property in 2015, Mr. Frank said. “It was already a rough situation. We’ve got to break this cycle of going back and finding culprits that are 50, 60, 70, 100 years old, to say, ‘Because of something that was done there, we have to do something that is similarly damaging to the resources now, out of necessity.’ ”

Samuel Kramer, the board’s vice chairman, presiding in the absence of the chairman, John Whelan, asked Mr. Frank if he would object to a short-term variance allowing the revetment to remain while Mr. Curtiss pursued an erosion control district. There is no assurance that such a district would be created, was the reply. Moreover, Mr. Frank said, an erosion control district’s efficacy is unknown, given the reality of climate change and sea level rise. 

“I do think you’re going to have to take a look at making alterations to the structure for long-term viability,” he said, perhaps relocating it landward, perhaps raising it on pilings. 

Mr. Terchunian said that the two sides shared “a tremendous amount of common ground,” and asked the board to be mindful that “if nothing happens, the consequences are very severe, and it’s not just this house, it’s going to be a bunch of houses, and it’s going to happen in a very short period of time.”

The hearing was closed, but Mr. Kramer said that the record would be left open so that Mr. Hammer could respond to points Mr. Frank had raised.