Death Sentence for a Beach, by Robert S. Young

David E. Rattray

Here is a simple fact. The downtown Montauk beach has been destroyed. Sadly, we predicted this would happen. In September of 2014, I wrote an evaluation of the (then) proposed project at the request of the eastern Long Island chapter of the Surfrider Foundation. My letter to the United States Army Corps of Engineers stated the following:

“In short, I have reviewed all documents and maps related to the project and the draft environmental assessment. I conclude that the project design is ill-conceived. The berm will not last and the geotextile bags will be uncovered far before the design life of the project is reached. If the geotextile bags are not destroyed in a storm, they will act as a seawall, narrowing the beach until it disappears (through passive erosion). There is a very high likelihood that the public beach will be lost as the project erodes.”

I don’t point this out to congratulate myself. I believe that anyone could have seen that this would be the outcome. For reasons that still confound me, the Town of East Hampton and even some local environmental groups supported the project. I guess a bunch of “crazy surfers” are easy to dismiss.

Possibly everyone was, and still is, counting on the beach’s being replaced someday through the oft-discussed Fire Island to Montauk Point project that the Corps has been formulating since 1960. This is quite a gamble. In the meantime, the economic and environmental damage could be substantial.

This past year has taught us that it doesn’t take much of a storm to remove the beach in front of the seawall, and the bags can be displaced and torn. As predicted, maintaining the project as designed will be incredibly expensive and time-consuming. So much so, in fact, that the Town of East Hampton wants out of those expensive maintenance requirements.

Initially, we were promised that the Corps would build the project and then the town would assume responsibility for maintaining it: keeping the bags covered, planting dune grass, and maintaining a dry beach in front of the sandbags. I am not sure what local officials thought would happen, but I guess they underestimated the difficulty and cost of holding up their side of the bargain.

Here comes the very bad news. It seems that the Corps is so desperate to turn over the management of this ill-fated project that they are going to let local officials off the hook. After the project is repaired one more time, no one will be responsible for planting dune grass and no one will be expected to maintain a beach in front of the sandbag wall.

The beach in downtown Montauk has been sentenced to death. Yes, it may be resuscitated someday by a full-scale beach nourishment project, but even that will be a short-term fix. And how far into the future is someday?

Given this predictable turn of events, the calls made three years ago by Surfrider members for a real discussion of managed retreat sound pretty sensible. It is time to have a serious discussion about relocating or buying out those properties that are too close to the sea.

Remember, shoreline change doesn’t destroy beaches, it just moves them. The problem comes when there are buildings in the way of that movement.

Moving buildings away from the shore is not a crazy idea. In fact, it was once par for the course in the days long ago when property owners didn’t expect the government to save them from moving shorelines on dynamic islands.

For downtown Montauk, you will eventually have to choose between the buildings and the beach. It is ultimately that simple. Right now, the beach is losing.

Robert S. Young is a coastal geologist and the director of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines at Western Carolina University.