Town Beaches Maxed Out

‘We could have guessed it would be crowded’
An extra-long holiday weekend and sunny skies brought happy crowds to the beaches at South Edison in Montauk, above, and all over the South Fork. Doug Kuntz

    East Hampton Town’s beaches were the subject of several discussions at the first July work session of the East Hampton Town Board.

    At the behest of Councilwoman Theresa Quigley, who has advocated establishing a new life-guarded ocean beach to accommodate the growing numbers of people using the beaches, town staffers were dispatched over the July Fourth weekend to count the numbers of people on beaches from Wainscott to Montauk.

    A photographer was commissioned as well, to take aerial photographs of those beaches, at a cost of $2,800.
    The result, observed Councilman Dominick Stanzione at Tuesday’s meeting, could allow the board to assume “the beaches were crowded.”

    “It was Fourth of July weekend; we could have guessed it would be crowded,” said Councilwoman Sylvia Overby.

    The count, which was conducted on the ground at 2 p.m. on July 4, 5, and 6, included a tally of people within the life-guarded “green” zones as well as in a “yellow zone” extending 100 yards east and west of the guarded area, as well as a count of people on the beach in the unprotected areas between yellow zones. Ms. Quigley said it was a good beginning, “that we as a town can look at and start figuring out where our people are going, what are they doing, and where we should put more support, if needed.”

    Swimmers at unprotected beaches are a concern. Where lifeguards are stationed, there must be a public bathroom within 1,000 feet, according to county health law. Regulations also prescribe the area of beach considered protected, surrounding each lifeguard.

    Accordingly, said John McGeehan, the town’s assistant chief of lifeguards, “We’re maxed out at every beach,” with the exception of Kirk Park beach in Montauk. At Kirk, a second lifeguard stand could be added, he said, extending the protected swimming area.

    Mr. McGeehan said that when the town’s five life-guarded ocean beaches “are so saturated that . . . people then go to unguarded beaches,” it was appropriate for the board to discuss what to do.

    However, he and others said, some beachgoers will deliberately choose more remote spots. “People like to go by themselves, but that’s dangerous at an ocean,” said John Ryan Sr., chairman of the East Hampton volunteer rescue squad’s water safety committee and a tireless advocate for water safety. “I do think we need more protected beaches,” he said.

    According to Betsy Bambrick, the town’s chief of ordinance enforcement, who oversaw the beachgoer count, the tallies over three days were averaged to get a numeric count of the people in each zone at each beach.

    At Indian Wells beach in Amagansett, she said, there was an average of 496 people in the life-guarded zone, 753 people surrounding that area, and 347 people in the “red zone,” considered a dangerous place to swim as it is not only unprotected but far enough away from lifeguards to preclude an immediate response to a swimmer in trouble.

    At Atlantic Avenue beach, also in Amagansett, the tally was 921 in the green zone, 512 in the area 100 yards east and west of the lifeguards, and 1,798 people spread out elsewhere along the beach.

    In Montauk, there were an average of 169 people near lifeguards at Kirk Park beach, 354 people in the yellow zone surrounding them, and 1,373 along the unprotected stretch of beach to the west.

    The unprotected area of beach in downtown Montauk, between the life-guarded beaches at Kirk Park and South Edison Street, averaged  1,178 beachgoers, with an additional 510 people on the unprotected beach east of South Edison beach.

    Near the lifeguard stands at South Edison, the number of people averaged 869; the number in the yellow zone around them averaged 1,215.

    At Ditch Plain, where erosion has limited the official bathing area, there was an average of 304 people near the lifeguards, 388 people in the 100-yard zone east and west of lifeguard stands, and 240 people at the far reaches.

    The aerial photographs have not yet been reviewed.

    “The reality is, these numbers are so dramatic, that you’re over capacity,” Supervisor Bill Wilkinson remarked. But Ms. Overby and Councilman Peter Van Scoyoc warned about making decisions based on the July Fourth weekend scenario.

    “We were in the middle of a heat wave,” Ms. Overby said. “You can’t base it on one set of statistics, on one weekend.”

    By a similar token, asked Mr. Van Scoyoc, should the town look at summer traffic and then expand the road system to accommodate the peak days? “At some point, it’s about capacity,” he said. “And you’re never going to meet the demands of the people who want to be here. . . .”

    Another discussion Tuesday centered on the metal posts being used by beachfront property owners to affix wooden fences along the beach, often used to trap sand and help sand dunes accumulate. The town code allows only wooden posts to be used.

    With approximately 20 cases being investigated by the ordinance enforcement department, and lifeguards daily accumulating 10 to 20 metal posts that have worked their way out of the sand and ended up in the surf, the board discussed possibly changing the code.

    Steve Kalimnios, a Montauk hotel owner, said that, with hardpan rock close to the surface on the Montauk beach, it was difficult to install wooden fenceposts. And, he said, the cost is three times that of metal. By installing fencing in front of his motel, he said, he is helping to build dunes on town-owned property. If forced to comply with the town code, he said, “the price of us protecting the town’s property has just skyrocketed.”

    He said an “unintended consequence” in that case was likely to be that property owners abandon fencing efforts. Wooden posts, he noted, break off and become stakes that pose danger and liability issues.

    Board members questioned why holes could not be drilled in the rock to install the wooden posts, and Diane McNally, an East Hampton Town trustee, suggested that in certain cases, different types of larger wooden posts might be allowed. A committee will be convened to discuss the issue, the board agreed.

    “I’m giving notice to the town right now that that beach could be considered unsafe to swim in,” Mr. McGeehan said of the downtown Montauk beach in the area where metal posts are being put in.

    “We’re saying, put it all on hold,” said Ms. Quigley — both the addition of more posts and the enforcement efforts against those who have violated the existing, wood-only code.

    The board also discussed a recent request from Rutgers University’s Coastal Ocean Observation Lab to install a 35-foot antenna and receiver on the dunes at Ditch Plain, which would collect ocean wave and activity data. The information, which is used by the Coast Guard among other agencies, would be provided to the town as well and could be useful in making decisions about coastal erosion issues.

    Ms. Quigley objected strenuously to the proposal, calling the location inappropriate, and questioned why “those who care about the environment, to my left” — apparently referring to Mr. Van Scoyoc — had not insisted on a full environmental review of the project. “Don’t we need a SEQRA? I can’t do anything without a SEQRA,” she said, meaning the State Environmental Quality Review Act.

    John Jilnicki, the town attorney, informed the board that the project falls into a category for which SEQRA review is not required. “It’s aesthetics, it’s safety, it’s too much in one spot,” Ms. Quigley said. Although the board was told the antenna would be “30 feet high,” she said that in a photograph provided it “looks more like 100 feet high.”

    Mr. Wilkinson agreed that he had a “personal issue with the aesthetics of putting an antenna or two down in the dune grass at Ditch Plains.”

    At Councilman Stanzione’s request, board members agreed to hold off on a final decision until after the proposal could be presented to the Montauk Citizens Advisory Committee.


how could staffers accurately count beach attendance? please advise. $2800 for aerial work- taxpayers' money of course- when will that study be ready? what about the other town beaches ? this beach hardly looks "maxed out". how about more lifeguards and less bullshit. thank you