Town still weighing dredge purchase

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With fiscal difficulties weighing on their shoulders, town officials are throwing a little cold water on the Town Trustees’ plan to buy a dredge of their own so they don’t have to wait endlessly for the county to carry out waterways maintenance projects here.

Town Board members met with members of the East Hampton Town Board of Trustees, who manage the town’s waterways, bay bottoms and wetlands, last week to discuss details of the plan. Support on the Town Board, which controls the Trustees’ budget, remained strong for the purchase of the approximately $500,000 floating dredge—but questions about the long-term costs of operating it left an air of doubt hanging over the conversations.

“We had the impression that it was a done deal,” Trustees clerk Diane McNally said of the plan to purchase the dredge. “But at this point, between the budgetary constraints and some lingering doubts—where the sand will go, what it will cost—we are not positive yet. The concept is good, I think most of the [Town Board members] support that.”

Ms. McNally noted that the Trustees are in the midst of drafting an application to the state for a grant that could pay up to half of the purchase cost and possibly half the annual operating cost.

“I’m still in support of it,” Supervisor Bill McGintee said this week. “These waterways need to be navigable. But at the same time, we need to know what the taxpayers are going to be in for in the long term. What is support equipment going to cost, are we going to have to hire personnel? We just need to balance the expenses with the environmental and navigation needs.”

Trustee Norman Edwards, who has spearheaded the dredge proposal, said he hopes costs could be further offset with some funding from the county, which is responsible for dredging the county’s waterways and would be saved considerable amounts of work, and expense, if the town bought its own dredge. Mr. Edwards said he didn’t think it would be unreasonable to ask the county for as much as $100,000 in subsidies for the town dredging work.

The county has only one floating dredge and the wait to get a project on a priority list, and for the dredge to arrive at any particular location, can be years.

Trustee Lynn Mendelman said at a recent meeting that the town might also be able to recoup some costs by contracting out its services to other townships if it gets ahead of East Hampton’s local dredging needs.

Mr. Edwards played down the potential for the town to take on additional dredging duties in the region. Because of laws protecting endangered shore birds and flounder, dredging can be done only during a four-month window in mid-winter, limiting the time available for more work.

Mr. Edwards said the dredge crews could be drawn primarily from current town employees familiar with local waterways, augmented with a handful of part-time employees to keep operating costs down. He said that accessory equipment, such as boats and vehicles to move the dredge, were already owned by the town. Required studies of the harbor and channel bottoms to be dredged could be done by the town’s natural resources staff.

“Conceptually it sounds good,” Councilman Pete Hammerle said. “We do have dredging needs that the county can’t always be there for. But, you know, in these financial times, there are still a lot of details to be worked out. If you’re not careful, things pop up and it ends up costing a lot more than we thought. We want to be sure of what we’re getting into here.”

Mr. Edwards said he estimates the dredge would cost the town approximately $200,000 a year to operate—half of which could be covered by state grants. The benefits to the town, added Mr. Edwards, a commercial fisherman, would far outweigh the monetary costs.

“In 1970, 75 percent of Accabonac Harbor was eelgrass,” Mr. Edwards said. “Today it is less than half of one percent. That harbor needs good water flow to stay healthy. The county cannot keep up with our dredging needs.”

Mr. Edwards said that shoaling in the mouths of Accabonac and Three Mile Harbor robs sand from the littoral flow along adjacent beaches, exacerbating erosion. In smaller harbors, he said, a town dredge could open channels that have never been dredged by the county, including the one to Fresh Pond.

The county is scheduled to undertake a major dredging project in the channel to Three Mile Harbor this fall, the second in 10 years. The Trustees have paid more than $100,000 in recent years to clear the east inlet to Napeague Harbor and the culvert into Accabonac Harbor—work that could be handled in the future by a town-owned dredge.

When they proposed the purchase of the 50-foot, 25-ton dredge, the Trustees argued that county crews are spread too thin by the more than 75 inlets and harbors county-wide that they maintain to keep up with East Hampton’s needs. Mr. Edwards said that, particularly in the last 10 years, with the shrinking annual dredging window, it has been hard to get a local project onto the county’s schedule.

With its own dredge, the town could have six of its waterways—Three Mile Harbor, Northwest Harbor, Accabonac, Napeague, Montauk, and Fresh Pond—dredged on a regular three- to four-year rotation, Mr. Edwards said, and could step up efforts to reduce the large shoal that has built up inside Georgica Pond. In the last few years, the Trustees have gotten a state permit to dig out portions of the shoal with a backhoe but the work is slow and often hampered by weather and the need for the pond to be at low levels to do the work. With a dredge, the town could remove the shoal without opening the cut to lower water levels.

A committee formed by the Trustees has developed a regular dredging schedule of the seven primary water bodies in town on a four-year cycle. The plan would be the basis of a blanket permit application to the state Department of Environmental Conservation, which must sign off on all dredging projects, Mr. Edwards said. By submitting such a plan, he said, obtaining permits from the state, a burdensome and slow process that other townships often complain about, would go much smoother.

Mr. Edwards said the material removed from most of the channels the town plans to dredge would be deposited directly on adjacent beaches to rebuild eroded areas. If the town finds itself with a surplus of dredge spoil, he said, it could sell compatible sand to companies working on private erosion remediation. Any material sold would have to remain within the town, he added.

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