A Broader Beach Takes Shape

Oceanfront residents foot the bill for a $25 million restoration project
An aerial view of the $25 million Southampton beach restoration that began last fall at Flying Point Beach in Water Mill and is now nearing completion at Town Line Road in Sagaponack. Doug Kuntz

       People who have not been down to the ocean beach in eastern Southampton Town for the past three or four months will be in for a surprise if they decide to take an early winter stroll there this week.

       Stretching out before them as they walk over the crest of the dune will be an expanse of sand as vast and as empty as the parking lot at Giants Stadium midweek in the offseason, though certainly more beautiful.

       The transformation is the result of a massive beach-rebuilding program, more than a decade in the making, that finally began in October and is expected to be completed in the coming weeks. By its end, workers with Great Lakes Dredge and Dock Corporation will have dredged some 2.5 million cubic yards of sand — about 200,000 dump-truck loads — from targeted reserves about a mile offshore, pumped it landward in 30-inch steel pipes, and shaped it, using a small army of bulldozers and payloaders, into a gentle slope down to the water’s edge.

       Contractors say the project will ultimately result in an average of 80 to 100 feet of sand being added from the base of the dune to the water’s edge, although it is considerably wider than that now. Wave action will pull some of the sand off the beach, where it will create an underwater buffer, and the wind will blow some inland to help build up dunes ravaged first by Hurricane Irene and later by Hurricane Sandy.

       The project, extending about six miles from Flying Point Beach in Water Mill east to Town Line Road, will cost about $25 million. The lion’s share, all but about $1.5 million, which will be covered by Southampton Town, will be paid through a 10-year bond by the owners of oceanfront land in two erosion-control tax districts, one in Bridgehampton and one in Sagaponack, who approved the project in a referendum last winter.

       “Our view is, the people on the ocean should pay for these projects,” said Jeff Lignelli, a member of the Bridgehampton Erosion Control District advisory board and a part-time resident of Dune Road. “They will get the majority of the benefits so they should take the risk.”

       He called the joint undertaking “a perfect example of homeowners working closely with the government to come up with a solution that the public could not do on its own,” and said that “the people running Southampton could not have been more professional and supportive.”

       The solution is likely to be pricey, though, for property owners in the narrow swath of land along the dune line that is included in the two erosion-control districts. Mr. Lignelli estimated that the beach-building project will cost them on average an additional $10,000 a year in taxes for every 100 feet of beachfront property.

       What is more, given the increasing frequency and ferocity of coastal storms and the threat of sea-level rise associated with global warming, supporters expect this will be only the first in a series of interventions.

       “We do believe there will be regular beach-replenishment cycles every 10 years or so,” said Mr. Lignelli, “but we do think we have a plan to replace the beach in the long term.” He expects that up to half the sand being hauled in today will still be in place after 10 years, so that future dredging operations will not have to be as extensive.

       “It’s like painting your house. You don’t do it once,” said Aram Terchunian of First Coastal Corporation, a Westhampton Beach company that is directing the project and that oversaw the permit-application process.

       He described the project as a win-win scenario in which those who benefit from it most are generously footing most of the bill. “Everyone benefits from the beach,” he said of the broader community. “Without the beach, where are we — spiritually, economically, environmentally.”

       Dr. Tim Kana, a coastal geologist and the president of Coastal Science and Engineering, a Columbia, S.C., firm that is managing the construction end of the undertaking, said it was anybody’s guess just how much sand will remain in place after 10 years, but that he was confident the current operation will create a solid base on which to undertake future restoration efforts.

       He rejected the notion, raised by some skeptics, that a single storm like Sandy, which caused massive devastation UpIsland, in New York City, and along the Jersey Shore, could destroy the sand replenishment at one fell swoop.

       “It would be physically impossible to move that much sand that quickly,” he said matter-of-factly during a recent tour of the beach, pointing out that about 95 percent of 4.5 million cubic yards of sand placed at Nag’s Head in North Carolina had survived both Irene and Sandy.

       Unlike smaller-scale beach nourishment efforts undertaken by individual homeowners, the Bridgehampton-Sagaponack project stands a much better chance of surviving storms over time, Dr. Kana said. “If you double the length, you quadruple the lifespan, so a half-mile project will last just a fraction of a three-mile project.”

       A key component to the project, he said, is that most of the sand being hauled in will wind up just offshore. “The underwater part is more important than the sand on the shore,” he said, explaining that it provides the first line of defense in a storm.

       Mr. Terchunian pointed to the healthy beach created at the Village of West Hampton Dunes in western Southampton Town after storms in the early 1990s, as a reason for optimism.

       He said the time was right for a major restoration effort in the eastern part of the town. While similar projects could take up to five years to be approved, he said it took only 18 months to get the town, state, and federal permits required.

       “Sandy changed people’s dispositions in a big way,” he said. Before that storm there were few worries, but afterward, he said, it was another story.

       The project follows Southampton Town policy that began to take shape during the mid-1990s when a series of northeasters lashed the coast. The poster child for the debate that followed came in the form of a huge tiered system of geotubes — heavy plastic bags filled with sand — that William Rudin, a Dune Road neighbor of Mr. Lignelli, had constructed to protect his house from the ocean’s onslaught. When contractors started that project, they blocked the ocean from the worksite with a “cofferdam” made of watertight pilings, which also blocked public beach access and touched off a furor.

       Mr. Rudin’s geotubes failed in a subsequent storm. He told police that vandals had split open the bags, undermining the system.

       Vandalized or not, the Rudin experiment was at least partly responsible for the town’s Atlantic Shoreline Generic Environmental Impact Statement, which concluded that Southampton should embrace comprehensive beach restoration projects targeting broader areas and using so-called “soft solutions,” not rock or steel.

       The town has learned by experience that a unified approach is the only way to go, said Bob DeLuca, executive director of the Group for the East End. “After every storm, you’d have 18 different people with 18 different plans,” he said. “There was no coordination . . . we think what they have tried to do [now] is about as close as you can get to a sustainable long-term erosion-control strategy.”

       He compared the current project to what is happening in Southampton Village, where several homeowners have seized on the village government’s unwillingness to prevent “hard” structures and have erected seawalls and dumped rock along the beach.

       “Now you have a crazy hodgepodge of hard structures, and I think there is plenty of evidence that they destroy the beach,” he said.

       Despite his support for the Bridgehampton-Sagaponack project, Mr. DeLuca said it would be necessary to take a wait-and-see attitude before judging its effectiveness. “As humans, we are just doing the best we can to make a natural system work,” he said. “Like any coastal construction project, it is just a holding pattern. If the ocean continues to rise, we’re going to have bigger issues. Hopefully, we won’t have an ocean lapping against a steel bulkhead.”

       Mr. Lignelli doubted that would ever be the case. “Our beaches have been stable, we are in a good position. But it was very clear they needed to be nourished.”

       Plus, he said, the restored beach serves as an insurance policy with the Federal Emergency Management Administration, because “you first have to have an engineered beach to be eligible” for FEMA reimbursements in the event of storm damage.

       Dr. Kana said FEMA reimbursements depend on accurate, regularly updated surveys of how much sand is in place before a storm, something that is being built into the current project. “FEMA will fund rebuilding, but you have to document what was there before and after, so if you are down to 80 percent and you lose half of what’s left, they’ll help you build back to 80 percent,” he said.

       “All beach communities should be aware of how much sand they have. Some years you lose 5 percent, some years you lose 10 percent, and some years you gain some.”

Bulldozers spread sand pumped from a dredge offshore along the beach near Gibson Lane Beach in Sagaponack. Stephen J. Kotz

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