Trustees: Due Diligence for Damaged Dunes?

    The East Hampton Town Trustees’ efforts to maintain jurisdiction over public property is creating friction with beachfront property owners hoping to rebuild dunes damaged or destroyed in the extreme weather events of last fall and winter.

    While both parties have the same goal, at least one contractor is feeling squeezed by what he called an overly burdensome permitting process on the one hand, and, on the other, clients who will simply find someone else to install fencing if he will not.

    Billy Mack of First Coastal, a Westhampton Beach company that specializes in preservation and protection of waterfront property, asked the trustees to explain their views on snow fencing, which is used to “catch” sand to rebuild dunes lost to erosion, at their May 28 meeting.

    Mr. Mack, who said he has been installing shoreline fencing on the South Fork for more than 30 years, could not install it on three properties this year because the owners had trouble getting permits from the trustees, who manage the town’s common lands. “I’m losing money because I’m trying to play by the rules,” he told the board. “Those were my customers, now I’ve lost them. I’m a local person trying to keep my business alive. . . . If you make the rules so hard, people will break them.”

    The problem, Mr. Mack told The Star on Monday, stems from an application process, instituted a few years ago, that requires the submission of an updated survey, a site plan, and a site visit. In only a few cases, he said, have owners of beachfront property taken their applications to completion.

    “Three or four hundred dollars’ worth of sand fencing costs as much as three to five thousand dollars just to get the permit,” he said. “It makes no sense, and in doing that, [the trustees] are doing a big disservice to themselves as well as property owners that want to undertake this at their own cost. They’re trying to restore dunes massively eroded after Sandy and other events like the northeaster, and are looking to passively regain their sand, to rebuild their dunes. They’re being prohibited by this over-burdensome process the trustees have set up.”

    Because of the requirements, he said, some homeowners “find somebody that doesn’t understand the permit process to do it” — such as a landscaper — “which cuts me out.”

    The trustees were sympathetic, and agreed that the procedure is imperfect, but asked that Mr. Mack understand their motivation. Diane McNally, the trustee clerk, told The Star last week that the board was concerned about improper use of public property.

    Snow fencing, she said, “is a traditional means of protecting the dunes,” but “has evolved into a means of identifying private property,” meaning fencing that is installed in conjunction with homeowners’ planting of beach grass. She cited an ongoing lawsuit concerning an oceanfront homeowner who planted beach grass without a trustee permit and then laid claim to the land, “because his deed reads ‘to the beach grass line.’ ”

    “Each time trustees say, here’s a permit for a shoreline fence to put in front of the dune, you’ve just given this person another 10 feet of public property, which now looks private,” said Ms. McNally. “If we allow revegetation of the dune, every homeowner claims they own property to the edge of that grass. We do want to see shoreline restored, but don’t want to inadvertently give away public property.”

    Snow fencing, said the trustee clerk, becomes a hazard when it breaks or washes out. After a severe storm, multiple rows of partially buried fencing can leave metal or wooden stakes exposed. “We wanted to address it by saying, if fencing is working and somewhere between a third and a half covered, if we could lift it, it would continue to catch sand.”

    But buried fencing, the board learned, is very difficult to lift, and lifting it can do even greater damage to the dune. “We have not been able to come up with a compromise,” Ms. McNally said. “We’re hesitant to issue a permit if we can’t ensure public access to beaches.”

    Hence, a stringent process. “If we could be sure we know where they’re going, who’s installing, who’s going to take responsibility, we could get a handle on it,” she said. “The intent is there on all sides, but legally we’re stuck.”

     “On the other hand, we are not the only entity asking for this information. This person is going to go through the town, the [zoning board of appeals], the planning process. . . . To be criticized for requiring an updated survey before allowing permitted use on property, even if it is a 35-foot length of fence, is not fair.”

    At the meeting, Mr. Mack asked whether homeowners in violation were being prosecuted. “We’re not opposed to enforcing it, but we don’t patrol for that,” Patrick Gunn, the town’s public safety division administrator and an assistant town attorney, told The Star. “It’s not that we don’t want to, but we need a referral from the trustees, who own the property.”

    Mr. Mack said he understood the trustees’ concerns, “but this is way too burdensome for the property owner, especially after these storm events.” During Hurricane Sandy, he said, “Some people lost 40, 50 feet of dune. The property owner should be encouraged to do these passive types of restoration, instead of letting it erode further, or breaking the law.”