Vorpahl testifies in erosion lawsuit

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Attorneys for Southampton Town and Sagaponack homeowner Cynthia Ireland wrapped up their case against Suffolk County on Tuesday in their lawsuit over erosion they blame on the county-built groins at Georgica Beach.

The county’s legal team was expected to begin its defense on Tuesday with testimony from coastal geologist and engineer Dr. David Aubrey. His report on the movement of sand off the coast of Long Island is expected to be the root of the county case claiming that the groins are not the cause of severe erosion in Sagaponack and Bridgehampton.

Dr. Aubrey’s report attempts to prove sand does not flow east to west along the Long Island ocean shore, which has been accepted as fact for decades and is the basis of the plaintiff’s case.

The trial was switched from a jury trial to a bench trial, to be decided by the judge, at the last minute last Monday, March 24, as jury selection was to begin, and could go to the judge for a decision as early as the end of this week. The trial is being held in the federal district court in Brooklyn.

The plaintiffs, Ms. Ireland, Southampton Town and the Southampton Town Trustees, are seeking to force the county and Army Corps of Engineers to pay for a massive transfer of sand onto Sagaponack beaches and the alteration of the stone groins to eliminate the erosive effects the plaintiffs claim they have on the beaches to their west.

The county has claimed no culpability in the erosion, challenging what has long been accepted theory about the dynamics of the near-shore ocean.

In making their case that the groins were the cause of the erosion, the plaintiffs’ attorneys called on several East End residents this week to give testimony about their experiences with the groins, the beach around them and the sea’s interactions.

Baymen Stuart Vorpahl and Jon Semlear, former East Hampton planning consultant Lee Koppelman, Group for the East End president Robert DeLuca, and coastal geologist Aram Terchunian gave testimony for the plaintiffs over the last week.

“They asked me if I knew anything about littoral drift,” Mr. Vorpahl said with a scoff after his testimony last Thursday. “I said they might as well be asking me if I knew water was wet.”

Littoral drift is the term that describes the movement of water and, with it, sand, along the beachfront, independent of tidal influences and offshore currents. Conventional wisdom among coastal geologists is that the littoral drift on the South Shore of Long Island is from east to west. Sand from offshore “lenses” near Montauk is carried by even the most gradual waves westward along the beach. Geologists point to the much finer sand found—lightest, and so carried the farthest—on the beaches of western-most Long Island than is found on the East End as evidence of the effect.

Groins, which are built from giant quarry stones, placed perpendicular to the beach with the express intent of capturing sand, are blamed for starving beaches down-drift—that is, to the west, according to the most common suppositions about littoral drift.

“They claim that M’tauk is accreting—getting bigger—because the sand is flowing west to east,” Mr. Vorpahl said in an interview, with another scoff, of the county attorneys who cross-examined him. “You look at a picture of the lighthouse from a long time ago. Turtle Hill is gone. It’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard. I don’t know, bub, I think they must be out of their skulls if that’s what they’re going to argue.”

Turtle Hill was the name for the humped grassy bluff that once protruded hundreds of feet south and east in front of the Montauk Lighthouse but has been eroded to within 50 feet of the lighthouse’s base today.

County attorneys have repeatedly declined to comment in any way on the case other than to say they don’t agree with the plaintiff’s claims.

Mr. Vorpahl said that, in his testimony, he had recalled for Judge Brian M. Cogan his experiences while fishing with his brother’s ocean haul seine crew in the years before and after the groins were built. He said the east-to-west effects of littoral drift were unmistakable and that the changes to the beach after the groins were constructed were equally apparent. West of the groins the beach quickly became too steep to allow a haul seine boat to be launched into the surf, he said in a phone interview on Sunday.

On Monday afternoon, Gary Ireland, the attorney who filed the groins lawsuit eight years ago on behalf of his mother and then convinced Southampton Town to file a parallel suit in 2004, showed a video taken by Ms. Ireland a few years after the last groins were built—two were built in the late 1950s and two more were built in the early 1960s—that shows towering dunes extending more than 100 feet out in front of her Potato Lane home.

Today the house sits just feet from a precipice, having already been moved back from the sea once as the dunes eroded.

“The video was amazing,” recalled Aram Terchunian, a coastal geologist from Westhampton, who testified just before Ms. Ireland on Monday. “For you to watch that video and say that there hasn’t been erosion, you’d have to completely suspend all belief.”

The crux of the plaintiff’s case has been a study of littoral drift dynamics by Dr. Robert Dean, a coastal engineer from the University of Florida, and a report by Lee E. Koppleman, who served as the director of planning for Suffolk County from 1960 through 1988 and then worked as a development consultant for East Hampton town.

In 2006, Mr. Koppleman issued his report, as part of Southampton Town’s case in the groin lawsuit. In it, he claimed county political leaders had pushed for the construction of the jetties in the late 1950s and 1960s despite warnings from Army Corps engineers that they would cause erosion to their west that could result in the destruction of homes and lawsuits from homeowners.

Mr. Terchunian said that the report issued by Dr. Aubrey, who was expected to start giving testimony for the defense yesterday, Tuesday afternoon, claims that littoral drift goes a variety of directions and that the groins are not having the erosive effect on the beaches to the west as claimed.

“He is very good and he’s done a very extensive report,” Mr. Terchunian said of Dr. Aubrey’s coming testimony. “It’s just that there have been a dozen different sediment budgets done and every one says that sand moves east to west. Aubrey is telling us those are all wrong.”

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