Property Owner Takes on Town to Save His House

One man fights to save his blufftop house, others fear precedent and loss of public beach access
John Ryan is facing heavy opposition to his proposal to install an oceanfront stone revetment to protect his house on Surfside Avenue in Montauk. T.E. McMorrow

A Montauk property owner is challenging a town ban on some erosion-control measures in the hope of saving his blufftop house.

A proposed revetment to protect John Ryan’s house overlooking the ocean received a rocky reception on July 15 at an East Hampton Town Zoning Board of Appeals hearing that lasted until midnight.

Mr. Ryan and his representatives told the board that if it did not approve his request, his house would soon topple into the ocean. Opponents warned that approval would be tantamount to the destruction of the Montauk oceanfront.

One major impediment for Mr. Ryan is that his revetment is proposed for an area in which the town has banned such structures since 2007.

Despite the fact that the hearing ran four and a half hours, it was not nearly enough time for board members to wade through the volume of testimony and documents they received. The hearing was left open and will be continued on Aug. 12.

Mr. Ryan’s proposal calls for a 185-foot-long stone revetment at the bottom of an earthen-clay 40-foot-tall bluff facing the ocean on the western edge of the Shadmoor State Park and Rheinstein Town Park. All parties who spoke on July 15 agree that the bluff, which runs almost two miles between Ditch Plain and the downtown Montauk area, has been collapsing into the ocean at the rate of several feet a year.

The revetment would be 15 to 25 feet wide, according to a memo to the board prepared by Brian Frank, the head environmentalist for the East Hampton Planning Department, and would wrap around an extra 40 feet to connect to another revetment.

Mr. Frank told the zoning board that the proposal was contrary not only to the town code, but to the comprehensive plan, which was adopted in 2005, and the Local Waterfront Revitalization Plan.

The new structure would be composed of “armor stones four or five tons each to an elevation of 22 feet above sea level, with 10-to-12-ton armor stones at its base, and 250 cubic yards of imported sand.” All this would be brought to the site by trucks entering the beach at the South Essex Street cut at the western edge of downtown Montauk.

Mr. Ryan’s nearly one-acre property is at the end of Surfside Avenue and contains a 1,800-square-foot, two-story house.

He needs a permit to build the structure at the bluff face as well as a variance to build a structure that is prohibited by town code.

This is the second time in three years that Mr. Ryan has been in front of the zoning board asking for a revetment. In 2011, a previous board approved a 100-foot-long, 10-foot-wide stone structure designed to control the water flow in a gully at the eastern edge of Mr. Ryan’s property. The key difference is that the earlier revetment was not designed to interact with the ocean, but to control erosion of the gully wall.

Mr. Ryan’s house has already been moved once and there is nowhere else to move it, his engineer, Drew Bennett, told the board. “Retreat is no longer an option,” Mr. Bennett said.

He told the board that his client plans to truck in 45 cubic yards of sand every year to replenish the beach.

“I’m sure the board is afraid of setting precedent, but our situation is unique,” Mr. Bennett said.

Mr. Ryan spoke as did his representatives, Larry Penny, an environmental consultant who had been the town’s director of natural resources when Mr. Ryan’s earlier revetment was approved, and Mr. Ryan’s attorney, Anthony Pasca of Esseks, Hefter and Angel.

Precedent was only one of the concerns expressed by three of the four zoning board members who will vote on the application. Lee White, who lives in Montauk, recused himself from the hearing as he had from the 2011 deliberations. Only he and Don Cirillo were on the board three years ago when the earlier revetment was considered.

Mr. Cirillo, while not expressing outright support, has in the past supported property owners’ efforts to protect their houses from the ravages of nature, a sentiment he expressed again on July 15. The variance request requires at least three yes votes if it is to be approved.

“Can you assure that public access will always be guaranteed?” David Lys, another board member, asked Mr. Bennett. Mr. Bennett said he did not believe the project threatens public access, but opponents felt differently.

Speaking against the project were Michael Bottini, chairman of the Eastern Long Island chapter of the Surfrider Foundation; Jay Levine, a member of that organization; Thomas B. Muse, a neighbor and Surfrider member; Robert DeLuca, president of Group for the East End; Jeremy Samuelson, director of Concerned Citizens of Montauk, and Carl Irace, an attorney for C.C.O.M. Mr. Irace was the zoning board’s attorney in 2011. Before the meeting, the board had received letters of opposition from Dr. Stephen P. Leatherman, an environmental consultant known as “Dr. Beach,” and M. Pamela Otis, director of environmental management for the New York State Office of Parks, which oversees Shadmoor State Park.

The speakers expressed a chorus of concern over the massive proposed project, frequently echoing and underscoring each other’s arguments. They all agreed that public beach access would likely disappear as a result of the project. Right now, the sand and rocks beneath the bluff serve as a corridor for beachgoers walking between downtown Montauk and Ditch Plain. More importantly, emergency rescue teams use the corridor, they said.

“Lifeguards as well as the town marine patrols traverse this section of beach,” Mr. Bottini said. “It seems incongruous to us that the construction of a revetment to protect a house could be more important than the safety patrols on the beach to protect people.” Mr. Muse and Mr. Irace echoed that point.

Mr. Cirillo argued that to an extent all this traffic was trespassing on Mr. Ryan’s property, when it is north of the median high-water mark.

“It should come as no surprise that other homeowners will be lining up,” Mr. Levine said about the wave of requests that the board would likely receive if it grants the variances requested.

Mr. DeLuca warned, as did Mr. Frank, that the proposed revetment would be the first in about a mile in either direction. “How will this structure impact neighboring properties, and what precedent will it set?” Mr. DeLuca asked.

 The overriding concern of all speaking in opposition was the scouring and erosion they said would be the inevitable aftermath of the revetment.

Mr. DeLuca reminded the board of William Rudin’s attempt to break the impact of the ocean with a steel cofferdam installed in 1998 in Sagaponack. Many blamed it for severe erosion during a series of fall and winter storms that followed and said it had caused the scouring of the beach on either side of it and contributed to the loss of dunes protecting Scott Cameron Beach.

“The ocean had a different idea,” Mr. DeLuca said. “The whole thing collapsed.”

“Where you see a structure end, you will see scour,” Mr. Frank said.

Mr. Bennett told the board that the revetment would not cause scouring, because it was tapered at its ends. Both Cate Rogers, a board member, and John Whelan, the chairman, were skeptical. Mr. Whelan pointed out that the erosion was even worse on the western side of Mr. Ryan’s property. The revetment, he said, “would make a peninsula of Mr. Ryan’s property.”

The revetment is designed to deal with northeasters, Mr. Bennett said, adding that major storms would upset the placement of the massive stones, which would then have to be moved back into position. All this movement of multi-ton stones underneath a fragile clay bluff brought out questions of worker safety from board members and project opponents alike.

Ms. Rogers asked if a soft solution not involving stones had been considered. Mr. Pasca said that the collapsing bluff had been, in effect, a soft solution, a notion Ms. Rogers took exception to. “I’m going to stop you there. I don’t know how sand randomly falling can be compared to a coastal restoration project,” she said.

Mr. Samuelson concluded, as many of the opponents did, that at the least, the project should fall under the State Environmental Quality Review Act, which would trigger a need for a study on its environmental impact. “Approval would be a travesty,” he said. “At a minimum, seek an environmental statement. At a maximum, you have enough now to deny.”

Mr. Pasca emphasized the need for speed, either way, in the process. Mr. Cirillo urged that the hearing’s second round be scheduled for what would normally be a work session, Aug. 12, and his fellow board members agreed.