Climate Change Looms Large in Montauk Future

Coastal retreat and shift in downtown center
Sea level rise prompted a recommendation by consultants to the Town of East Hampton for a managed retreat from the ocean shoreline at Montauk’s downtown. Doug Kuntz

The last of five hearings for East Hampton Town’s hamlet studies, this one focusing on Montauk, drew a standing-room crowd to Town Hall last Thursday. 

The expected impacts of climate change loomed over the proceedings, as residents debated the long-range recommendation for a planned retreat from the Atlantic Ocean shoreline in Montauk’s downtown — where the beach along “motel row” is badly eroded by northeasters — and migration to what is at present lightly developed, higher ground inland. 

The consultants engaged by the town to conduct the hamlet studies have recommended a multiphase approach to a retreat from the ocean in Montauk, proposing acquisition by the town of flood-prone land between Fort Pond and the ocean, incentivizing motel and resorts’ relocation inland through purchase and transfer of development rights. They foresee a new resort and mixed-use corridor along Essex Street, gradually shifting the downtown’s center toward its intersection with Montauk Highway, which would be elevated between Fort Pond and the ocean. 

Ongoing erosion, and repeated exposure of the geotextile sandbags installed by the Army Corps of Engineers in 2015, a widely reviled emergency stabilization measure pending implementation of the corps’s long-awaited Fire Island to Montauk Point Reformulation Plan, led some frustrated residents of the hamlet to at once applaud the board for its foresight and criticize a perceived lack of specificity or timeline for action. 

A retreat plan “will be the next step,” Laura Tooman, president of Concerned Citizens of Montauk, told the board, but will take time and require code changes. “We need all players at the table starting today,” she said, “because it’s going to take a long time.” Along with retreat from the shoreline, “we need to simultaneously do additional things to ensure we protect water quality and our beach and dune system. C.C.O.M. is ready to help tackle this difficult endeavor.” 

Alison Branco, director of coastal programs for the Nature Conservancy, said that the town has been a leader on energy efficiency and other efforts to slow climate change. “Position yourself as a leader in adapting as well,” she urged. “There are many details to work out as we develop complicated financial and legal mechanisms” that would ensure that all stakeholders are treated equitably. The process will not be quick, she said, but “Montauk does not have the luxury of time. Planned retreat is the only solution.” 

The Montauk Beach Preservation Committee, which Ms. Tooman chairs, is studying the creation of an erosion control district for Montauk’s downtown, for which the board authorized a bond issue to fund a map, plan, and report on its feasibility. Responses to a request for proposals are due next Thursday, but some residents did not wait to criticize the idea. Representing the advocacy organization Defend H2O, Carl Irace said that beach renourishment is “an unsuitable solution” in the face of rising seas. “This is not fair to the public and not good fiscal policy, as sure as it is not good environmental policy,” he said. 

Andrew Brosnan, chairman of the Surfrider Foundation’s Eastern Long Island chapter, said that a managed retreat is one of the most encouraging recommendations among the hamlet study’s proposals, but added that the Army Corps’ emergency stabilization project had exacerbated erosion at the downtown beach. “Now we have beachfront motels that don’t have a beach six to eight months of the year. The beach is then trucked in, in the spring,” at taxpayer expense. “The idea of creating a special taxing district to address this has some merit,” he said, “although unless it is limited to those properties adjacent to the project, it unfairly burdens property owners in the downtown.” 

Thomas Muse agreed, likening an erosion control district to adding insult to injury, following installation of the geotextile sandbags on the downtown beach. “Take away half the beach by the Army Corps, then ask us to pay for it,” he said of those within such a district. “It seems amazing to me, to be looking to spread the liability the town and county have assumed . . . among a tax district that hasn’t been invented yet,” a plan he called meanspirited.

Retreating from the front row is the only way, Mr. Irace said. “There is no way to avoid the inevitable and the fact that this will only end one day,” the oceanfront buildings abandoned voluntarily, by people, or violently, by nature, the latter with attendant “disruption, loss of property, or worse.” 

Kevin McAllister, Defend H2O’s founder and president, urged the town to acquire oceanfront properties with the community preservation fund. Increasing density landward of the ocean “goes hand in glove with a sewer district” for downtown, he said, which “will be inevitable given coastal inundation.” 

“It may come down to tough love,” Mr. McAllister said, should oceanfront business owners balk at relocating. “I urge you to be prepared. Inevitably, we have to move back.”

But Alan Axelowitz, who is from Huntington but owns co-op units along motel row, said that the plan is unfair, that the beach preservation committee and the Army Corps should be given an opportunity to control erosion. 

Krae Van Sickle of Springs said that winter northeasters, coupled with the June-through-November hurricane season “make the region susceptible to storms pretty much all year round.” He suggested relocation of critical structures and services, like a transportation hub, a microgrid, and the I.G.A. supermarket, to vacant lands around the firehouse, the Montauk Playhouse Community Center, the Montauk Manor, and the Long Island Rail Road station. 

After nearly 20 members of the public had spoken, Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc summarized the hamlet study process. “I see a broad, diverse group of people concerned about their community,” he said. “Having your input is crucial for us as decision makers to decide how to move forward.” Montauk’s hamlet study is “an outline and vision statement” that will inform the comprehensive plan once it is adopted and incorporated into it. “There is a great deal of work and planning that still has to take place to discuss every one of the topics.”

He said that the hearing should be closed so that the board could move to the planning phase as soon as possible. Councilwoman Sylvia Overby agreed, but Councilwoman Kathee Burke-Gonzalez and Councilmen David Lys and Jeff Bragman all said that the record should be held open for 30 days to allow additional public comment on each of the studies. 

The hamlet study process began almost three years ago with a series of walking tours and public sessions, called charettes. The consultants, Peter Flinker of Dodson and Flinker, a Massachusetts consulting firm, and Lisa Liquori of Fine Arts and Sciences, a former town planning director, held a series of presentations, soliciting and incorporating comments made in response to their findings. Their reports were revised and presented again, and public hearings for Wainscott, East Hampton, Amagansett, Springs, and Montauk were held at separate meetings of the board. 

A review under the State Environmental Quality Review Act will follow, and the plan will be sent to the Suffolk County Planning Commission for review before adoption and incorporation into the town’s comprehensive plan.