Montauk’s oceanfront business district, its “downtown,” has become a testing ground, a sea-level stage on which a drama with the potential for environmental and financial ruin, competing philosophies, and the absence of a guiding light, is being played.
Last week, in the wake of another northeaster, Steve Kalimnios of the Royal Atlantic Beach Resort there called for a special tax district through which he and other oceanfront business owners could raise most of the money needed to rebuild and maintain the beaches. Also last week, however, a newsletter from the Concerned Citizens of Montauk expressed a different point of view, warning that “not all damaged businesses and infrastructure can or should be reconstructed ‘in place’ and ‘in kind.’ ”
According to Mr. Kalimnios, a recently named committee headed unofficially by the East Hampton Town Board members Theresa Quigley and Peter Van Scoyoc is scheduled to meet on Jan. 7, and every two weeks thereafter, in what he called an aggressive attempt to come up with a plan for erosion response. The committee includes members of the hospitality industry, like Mr. Kalimnios, as well as environmentalists.
In the C.C.O.M. newsletter, Jeremy Samuelson, the executive director, agreed with Mr. Kalimnios on the need for a plan, suggesting the creation of a coastal protection and recovery plan of the kind advocated by Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Mr. Samuelson said he had not been informed of the Jan. 7 meeting, but he and Mr. Kalimnios seem to agree that, in Mr. Samuelson’s words: “Montauk’s response to more numerous and powerful storms and rising sea level will only be successful if we find a consensus among scientists, property owners, land planning professionals, economic experts, and elected officials. For too long elected officials have avoided taking on the difficult but critical topics of protection and recovery. By refusing to adapt to circumstances . . . we will lose that which is most dear.”
When the dunes protecting Mr. Kalimnios’s hotel were taken by mega-storm Sandy on Oct. 29, he paid for sand to replace them. But when a second storm followed in early November, he had a couple dozen concrete septic rings installed on the beach. They were subsequently approved by the State Department of Environmental Conservation to provide temporary protection.
On Saturday, Mr. Kalimnios said he knew one thing for sure: The rings had worked. Although the latest storm took the sand that had covered the rings, at least 7,000 cubic yards remained beneath them. That the rings are still there is a victory of sorts, the hotel owner said, but he called them only a stop-gap solution, and a very controversial one at that.
Mr. Kalimnios described the latest attack on the area known as Motel Row. This time, he said, the rings protected the Royal Atlantic’s underbelly, but it gutted an artificial dune built to the west at the Ocean Beach resort, which did not have ring protection. “The ocean beat against their basement walls,” Mr. Kalimnios said, and played havoc with the much-touted over-sized sand bags known as geo-cubes in front of the property directly to the east of the Royal Atlantic.
The latest storm also scoured deep into the beach to reveal steel posts put in to hold fencing in the 1970s. Although the geo-cubes and the concrete rings held, the result was scary, Mr. Kalimnios said, pointing to a photograph on his computer screen. The photo showed a deep trench running parallel to the beach. Virtually nothing was left of what had been the 300-foot-wide beach between the resort and the ocean when the steel fence posts went in.
“Why are they bashing me?” the hotelier said of unnamed persons whom he said had been photographing his property before and after last week’s storm.
“My fear is there’s so much negativity. Why not harness the resources we have to do a soft solution? They are treating us like the enemy.” Mr. Kalimnios returned again and again to the division that he said exists between the business and environmental communities. “Use me, use me,” the beleaguered hotel owner entreated.
Mr. Kalimnios said the combined financial resources of the beachfront hotel owners should be tapped via a special tax district for most of the cost of rebuilding and maintaining the beach. He insisted that he had never advocated, or considered plans for, “hard” erosion control methods such as sea walls or revetments. Nor had his neighbors, he said. Discounting any help from the federal government, Mr. Kalimnios said this would be primarily a private fix.
Suggestions presented by the environmental community, for either raising or relocating oceanfront structures, were “pie in the sky,’ Mr. Kalimnios said, adding that they were completely unrealistic, both logistically and financially. “Look, if I wasn’t here. If the other hotels were gone, that doesn’t solve the problem.”
The hotel owner criticized C.C.O.M. for not recognizing the economic implications that forced him to put in the concrete rings. “My insurance company will not insure me if I don’t secure my asset. I’m securing my asset,” Mr. Kalimnios said.
“In 2008,” the C.C.O.M. newsletter states, “C.C.O.M. identified the need for a plan. As part of that year’s local election we asked all candidates for town and county office to commit to leading the . . . effort. C.C.O.M identified $200,000 in state grant funding available to East Hampton that was earmarked for a coastal community willing to step up to the challenge.”
Mr. Samuelson wrote that inaction on the part of local officials resulted in the grant money going to the Catskill region instead. He said on Monday, however, that state money could again be available in the aftermath of Sandy.
Mr. Kalimnios also faulted the town’s inaction. He said officials should not have been taken by surprise. “There is no beach management department, and the beach is our most important asset.”
Reached on Monday, Mr. Samuelson said that he sympathized with the hotel owner’s predicament and understood the need to secure his property. It was how the assets had been secured that he was critical of, going further to doubt the effectiveness of the concrete rings.
“The D.E.C. allowed those rings after they had already been put in — after the fact. If you look at how they behaved, they failed. We warned about uninformed engineering. We said they would fall into the surf zone, bang into each other and break, and then actually hold water in. It was the worst design possible. It’s what happens when people go cowboy.” There are solutions available that are in the code, Mr. Samuelson said, referring to the geo-cubes, which can be refilled if need be. “Efforts should be informed, not done because there’s a sale on septic rings,” Mr. Samuelson said.
Concerned about erosion in other parts of town, Diane McNally, clerk of the East Hampton Town Trustees, said this week that under a new trustee policy beachfront property owners will no longer be able to claim ownership of reconstructed dunes.
Except in Montauk, the town trustees own and manage beaches on behalf of the public. As far as the trustees are concerned, if the sea strips away a dune, what’s left becomes public beach.
The trustees place the seaward edge of private property at the beach grass line — the place where the dune grass stops. Dunes are generally understood to have grass growing on them. Before oceanfront property owners will be allowed to replace a lost dune, they will be required to add a covenant to their deeds agreeing that the reconstructed dunes are no longer private property.
The trustees have begun informing applicants for sand replenishment that they may be allowed to replace sand, but will not be permitted to plant stabilizing beach grass unless they agree to such a covenant. The trustees formerly required only that reconstructed dunes be planted with beach grass in order to stabilize them.
The trustees are, however, ready to sign permits for several homeowners to replace beach and dune stolen by storms since Sandy’s Oct. 29 visit. The Lerner, Istel, and Beach Realty L.L.C properties, all in the Georgica area — a neighborhood hit especially hard by last week’s northeaster — have the trustees’ blessing. The replenishment projects also have permission from the State Department of Environmental Conservation and East Hampton Village.
According to Ms. McNally and Larry Cantwell, the village administrator, similar applications are coming in on a regular basis. The Elie Hirschfeld house east of the Georgica Beach road end, where Bill and Hillary Clinton have vacationed in the past, lost all of its protective dune.
The Lerner property just to the east, which already had village and state permits to reconstruct dunes, took more hits from the three sand-eating storms since Sandy and recently got the nod from the trustees as well.
Along with the village and the town, the trustees are attempting to keep pace with storms and to adapt to what seems to be the new coastal normal. Ms. McNally said the trustees’ next job is to alert the D.E.C. and the town and village boards to the change.