In 2018, Thorny Issues Ahead

Fishermen versus wind farm, beach access at Napeague remain unresolved
One of Deepwater Wind's Block Island electricity generating turbines. The company is involved in a large project that has stirred some resistance in East Hampton. Durell Godfrey

When the clock strikes midnight on Sunday and South Fork residents turn their attention to new beginnings, several matters of importance remain unresolved and are sure to linger in the collective conscience well into 2018 and beyond. 

The proposed South Fork Wind Farm occupied the attention of many residents and governing officials throughout 2017 and, if anything, will be a matter of greater debate next year as its developer, Rhode Island-based Deepwater Wind, submits formal applications to multiple federal, state, and local permitting agencies. 

Shortly after the Long Island Power Authority chose Deepwater Wind’s proposal to construct a 90-megawatt wind farm approximately 30 miles east of Montauk, the company’s officials, led by Clint Plummer, its vice president of operations, made the first of a number of appearances in the Town of East Hampton and solicited opinion from various stakeholders. The most vocal opposition has come from commercial fishermen, fearful of detrimental effects of the wind farm’s construction and operation. 

In response to concerns about the wind farm’s transmission cable to a LIPA substation in East Hampton, Deepwater Wind altered an initial plan to route it along Gardiner’s Bay, instead choosing an oceanside landfall at the end of Beach Lane in Wainscott. The landing will require an easement from the town trustees, who own and manage many of the town’s beaches and bottomlands on behalf of the public, and from the town board, as the buried cable would make its way underground along several streets to the substation. 

Early this month, Deepwater Wind announced a package of cash grants for environmental projects and other incentives. But hurdles remain, particularly opposition from fishermen. Rhode Island-based fishermen have taken note of the controversy and are increasingly vocal in their criticism of Deepwater Wind’s Block Island Wind Farm, a five-turbine installation that began operation one year ago and is the nation’s first offshore wind farm. 

Most recently, commercial fishermen and Deepwater Wind are at odds over reports by the former that their trawl nets have snagged on the concrete mats that cover approximately 5 percent of the Block Island Wind Farm’s transmission cable.

“We were fishing in a place we traditionally fished — not just myself, the whole fleet, for years,” Joel Hovanesian of Rhode Island, who owns the vessel Defiant, said last week. “We ended up snagging our net on the bottom on an obstruction that is basically where they put these mats over these cables.”

Rich Fuka, the president of the Rhode Island Fishermen’s Alliance, that state’s largest commercial fishing advocacy group, called the Block Island Wind Farm “the crash test dummy for the national project,” hundreds of offshore turbines stretching from Maine to Delaware that other fishermen have alled the industrialization of the ocean. “Fishermen’s concerns about gear entanglements with mats, this is all true,” he said. New Yorkers, he said, “are not going to be told the truth.”

Deepwater Wind officials dispute accounts of entanglement on their installation and have pledged to host South Fork fishermen aboard a Rhode Island fisherman’s vessel to demonstrate that the concrete mats are not an impediment to fishing. 

The long-term issue is how the South Fork meets rising electricity demand and whether offshore wind is part of that solution. Fishermen argue that destroying the environment to save it makes no sense. Deepwater Wind counters that its wind farms will have minimal environmental impact, while a business-as-usual approach, in which the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions totaled 15.1 trillion pounds of carbon dioxide equivalents in 2014, is untenable and will result in more frequent, and violent, extreme weather and warmer and more acidic oceans that one day may not be able to sustain life. 

The town trustees are more intimately involved in another struggle: ownership of a stretch of ocean beach at Napeague. In 2017, plaintiffs appealed the previous year’s decision in State Supreme Court, ruling that they do not own a 4,000-foot strip of sand popularly known as Truck Beach.

The trustees and town are defendants in the suit brought by several homeowners’ groups and individuals who have long complained that hundreds of trucks, by their count, congregate there on summer days, presenting a hazard to other beachgoers. People and dogs, they argue, urinate and defecate on the beach and in the dunes, and speeding trucks are both dangerous to people and destructive to the fragile beach environment and endangered shorebirds that nest there. 

The trustees’ position is that unfettered beach access is a sacred right extending back to the town’s founding and an indispensable component of its maritime heritage. The board and its supporters see the struggle as a last line of defense against well-heeled summer residents’ efforts to privatize public lands. 

Supervisor Larry Cantwell, who is retiring, called the November 2016 decision by Justice Ralph Gazzillo “an enormous win for public access to our beaches.” 

Cindi Crain, a plaintiff in the lawsuit, saw it differently, citing the court’s ruling that the trustees “unequivocally sold the Napeague beach into private hands in the late 1800s.” A microscopic examination of deeds, an essential element of the plaintiffs’ claims, occupied a significant portion of the trial. 

The situation on the beach last summer “was about the same,” Ms. Crain said this month. “People peeing on the beach, a lot of cars.” The beach in front of her house hosted two nesting pairs of endangered piping plovers, she said, so vehicles were prohibited from the beach until early August. “Otherwise, to me, there always seemed to be a similar amount of cars.”

“We just hope the law prevails,” she said. “We’ll see if the appellate court agrees with our take on the matter.”

One issue on which all residents can perhaps unite is the ongoing effort to improve the health of Georgica Pond. Several consecutive summers in which cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae, bloomed in the pond led to action by the trustees and, later, a group of pondfront property owners calling itself the Friends of Georgica Pond Foundation. 

The trustees enlisted Christopher Gobler of Stony Brook University’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences to test the waters of Georgica Pond and other waterways under their jurisdiction, determine the type and sources of pollution, and issue recommendations as to how to mitigate the condition. The foundation followed suit, raising money among its deep-pocketed members to fund Dr. Gobler’s research and remediation efforts. 

With several years’ worth of data in hand, the efforts appear to be working. In 2016 and 2017, the foundation leased an aquatic weed harvester to remove plant material from the pond throughout the summer. The plant material, or macroalgae, releases nitrogen and phosphorus as it decays, which is believed to promote algal blooms. Once removed from the pond, the macroalgae was taken to the town’s recycling center for composting. 

This year “turned out to be an excellent year for the water quality of the pond,” Sara Davison, the foundation’s executive director, told the trustees last month. Dissolved oxygen levels were high, there were no fish kills, and a single cyanobacteria bloom, in June, lasted just one week. “If you compare that to past years, that’s really quite a significant improvement,” she said, “and we’re all very happy about that.”

These conditions, she noted, were present despite the fact that the pond was not opened to the Atlantic Ocean in the spring, one of two lettings that the trustees typically conduct, which helps to circulate the water and flush it of toxins.

The trustees oversaw a letting of the pond to the ocean in October, an event that Anne Gilchrist Hall of the foundation called “great news” that would “restore the saline balance needed for fish and crab life and flush out algae blooms.” A secondary benefit, she said, was the alleviation of flooding. “Wetland flooding has not been good for buffer zones and trees along the pond,” she said. 

Later that month, Ms. Davison thanked the trustees for taking that action, and asked them to remember to “get the spring opening accomplished next year.”