Corps’ Beach Proposal Disappoints

Montauk effort smaller than hoped; town or county must handle maintenance
Steve Kalimnios of the Royal Atlantic motel speaking at the April 22 meeting Morgan McGivern

The Montauk beach protection project offered up by the Army Corps of Engineers at a presentation at East Hampton Town Hall on April 23 — a freebie, at full federal expense, under a fast-tracked post-Hurricane Sandy repair program — proved a disappointment to some hoping for an immediate, large-scale beach reconstruction.

“It’s better than a sharp stick in the eye,” said New York State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr., who attended the presentation. “It provides protection, it gets the state and the feds involved in what has to be done for Montauk, but I share the hope that when we are in the second phase of this thing, that we can come up with a more robust sand renourishment for downtown Montauk.”

In the near term, the Corps plan calls for stabilizing the beach by installing sand-filled geotextile bags, buried under three feet of sand, until more extensive work can be done.

“It falls far short of anything meaningful,” said Steve Kalimnios of Montauk. As an owner of the Royal Atlantic motel on the ocean, he said he has continually had to place considerably larger amounts of sand on the beach to protect his building. “I do not want to be ungrateful for what is being put forward,” he said, “but it needs to be larger.”

The $6 million project is considered an interim fix “to bridge the gap,” according to Steve Couch of the Army Corps, until the implementation of a full-scale Atlantic coast reconstruction project called the Fire Island to Montauk Point Reformulation Project, or FIMP.

The Army Corps study of how to rebuild and protect 83 miles of Long Island shoreline has stretched longer than four decades, but specific projects have now been authorized and federally funded, and shoreline beach fill projects under FIMP’s scope, including one at Montauk, could begin by spring 2016.

However, two severely eroded beaches, at Fire Island and downtown Montauk, were selected after Sandy for immediate work. Preliminary discussions with the Army Corps last fall about project options included more extensive work, such as rebuilding and extending the width of the beach and installing new dunes with a stone core.

But under new federal guidelines, Mr. Couch explained last week, those projects do not qualify for the interim program, based on the Corps analysis of costs and benefits.

The geotextile bags are to be smaller in size and shape than the “geotubes” used on a Sagaponack beach, which caused beach scouring similar to what a hard structure would have caused, and eventually failed. They would be about 5 feet long, 3 feet wide, and 1 foot high when filled, and weigh over 2 tons each. They would be placed in front of the dune along a 3,100-foot span of beach in front of the downtown hotels. The bags would be covered with a minimum of three feet of sand, and a 45-foot wide berm would be created in front of them, using 45,000 cubic yards of sand.

They would be expected to be effective for 15 years, reducing potential storm damages by 75 percent, said Mr. Couch.

An aggressive schedule laid out for the project requires the town to give the okay within the next few weeks, and, after environmental assessments and public comment periods, for construction to begin in December and last about six months. If begun late this year, said Anthony Ciorra of the Army Corps, it will extend into the 2015 summer season.

“Obviously, we don’t want construction within our season here,” Town Supervisor Larry Cantwell said.

Paul Monte, the head of the Montauk Chamber of Commerce, said at the meeting that it was “very exciting” that a Montauk beach project could soon get under way. He thanked all involved, but, he said, “I am a little disappointed in what’s being proposed.”

The more extensive storm protection and beach reconstruction project,  “meant to function over a longer time period” under the Fire Island to Montauk project, would likely entail adding a volume of sand that would replenish the beach and create a “feeder beach” that would continue to offset erosion through natural sand migration, said Mr. Couch. The geotextile-bag reinforced dune would be compatible with the eventual larger project, he said.

 Town Supervisor Larry Cantwell expressed “concern that this project has become bifurcated. Doing the emergency project,” as described, he said, “leaves Montauk vulnerable until FIMP is completed.”

The Army Corps, said Mr. Couch, “must select a plan that maximized the benefit relative to the cost.” However, the short-term proposal could still be revised, he said.

Mr. Cantwell said that the town would try to make a case for the immediate construction of a feeder beach by submitting additional data about the economic and recreational value of a maximized Montauk beach.

While the Corps originally requested a response from the town about the proposed project by next week, Sue McCormick of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, the state partner in the project, said last week that the deadline could be stretched to mid-May.

A local sponsor — the county or the town — must sign on, and would be responsible for keeping the bags covered with sand, for monitoring the project, and for maintenance. Mr. Couch said that the type of storm estimated to occur every 5 or 10 years could cause enough damage to the sandbags and berm that maintenance would be required. However, federal money could be available for repairs after certain kinds of storms that meet particular federal criteria.

Thomas Muse of the local chapter of the Surfrider Foundation expressed concern at last week’s meeting about the ongoing costs to the town. And, he said, “I don’t know if we want to go downtown to the beach and see sandbags”

Christopher Poli of the Ditch Plains Association said that consideration should be given to protecting the beach at Ditch as well, especially given the cost-benefit analysis to which the Army Corps subjects its projects. While there are 8 to 10 structures within the federally drawn flood zone in Montauk’s downtown, he said, there are 128 “principal structures” and 122 trailers in the Ditch Plain area at risk. “I implore you to include Ditch Plains as a feeder beach,” he said. “Ditch Plains needs to be addressed before a storm, not after a storm,” he said.

“I am blown away and extremely disappointed that the Corps has not included the Ditch Plains area in their short-term solution,” said Scott Bradley, who said he was a new owner of the East Deck Motel at Ditch Plain.

“The focus of our stabilization effort has been downtown Montauk,” said Mr. Couch. However, he said, after a request by the town board last fall to include the Ditch Plain area, the Corps is “re-looking at Ditch Plains . . . in the context of the overall reformulation study.”

Tom Knobel commented that the tight schedule laid out by the Corps “hardly allows for any sort of redesign,” of the project although, he said, “it is obvious that it needs to be enlarged.”

Jeremy Samuelson, the executive director of Concerned Citizens of Montauk, questioned the Army Corps estimate of the ongoing maintenance costs for the sand-filled bags of $60,000 annually, in light of much larger figures cited by Mr. Kalimnios about what he has spent. “Before we sign anything, we’ve got to know the numbers,” Mr. Samuelson said. “We’re potentially signing on to something that could blow us out of the water as far as the 2-percent tax cap,” he said, regarding the state-imposed limit on annual property tax increases.

Mr. Kalimnios offered his “complete support in moving forward with both projects in the most expeditious manner.”

Rameshwar Das, an author of the town’s Local Waterfront Revitalization Program plan, said that before the federal emergency beach-protection money became available post-Sandy, the town had been discussing establishing an erosion protection tax district for downtown Montauk or elsewhere, in order to cover the costs of reconstruction projects.

“You make a good point,” Supervisor Cantwell said. “In the longer term, we need to have this conversation,” he said, about “projects we might want to take on ourselves” and to “develop a long-term mechanism to deal with these issues going forward.”

While many details remain to be determined, he said, on the positive side “There is pretty good, strong consensus of opinion in the community — especially in Montauk — about moving forward.”