Study holds back on beach restoration projects

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MONTAUK—More than 100 people showed up at the Montauk Firehouse on Wednesday to hear the preliminary conclusions of a decades-long assessment of Suffolk County’s ocean beaches by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers—a report that called for a much less ambitious effort to bolster eroded beaches in East Hampton than at locations farther west.

The study calls for millions of tons of sand to be dumped onto the beaches west of the Shinnecock Inlet in Hampton Bays at regular intervals, groins in Westhampton Beach to be shortened a second time, and for the implementation of an odd-year program of dredging 
within Shinnecock and Moriches inlets and at the inlets’ 
mouths to keep sand moving naturally along south shore beaches.

But the report does not recommend that stone groins at Georgica Beach in East Hampton, which have been blamed for erosion nearby, be altered or removed. And in Montauk and Sagaponack, the study found that it would not be cost effective to transfer sand to the beaches there. The value of the private property that would be protected by major sand beach renourishment does not justify the tens of millions it would cost on a regular basis to keep the beaches there broad, the report concludes.

Army Corps Engineer and Project Planner Steve Couch said Montauk residents and business owners who attended the session on Wednesday were mostly concerned with downtown Montauk and the business community.

The primary value of bolstering the barrier beaches to the west of Shinnecock and Moriches would be in protecting the area from the inland flooding that would be experienced along the northern shores of coastal bays should breaches occur in the barrier islands. Sagaponack and Montauk do not pose such threats and have relatively small areas of exaggerated erosion, making major renourishment projects difficult and ineffective, said Mr. Couch.

“We looked at those areas for a traditional beach fill, and it just wasn’t economically feasible by our standards—weighing the value of what you’re protecting against what it costs,” he said.

Instead, he explained, a scaled-down effort, referred to as “sediment management,” could be conducted with smaller dredges, depositing 120,000 tons of sand from offshore sandbars onto the beaches every four years at a greatly reduced cost—$3 million to $5 million per cycle, compared to more than $15 million for full-scale beach nourishment.

East Hampton Town Councilman Dominick Stanzione said he was worried that there were few suggestions in the report for protecting Montauk, saying that the problem is inherent in the Army Corps’ methods of analyzing property value. “The town’s problem is with the economic impact,” he said. “But there’s nothing we can do—it’s ingrained in the way the Army Corps analyzes.”

The decision not to recommend altering the Georgica groins, as has already been done with Westhampton’s 13 groins, came based on evidence that the groins were likely not the primary cause of the erosion problems in Sagaponack and Bridgehampton.

The details aired at two public information forums—in Southampton on Tuesday and Montauk on Wednesday—are still tentative from the Army Corps’ standpoint. The final report is expected to be issued to the state, which will be responsible for implementing whichever recommendations it sees fit, by next summer. It will likely be another year or two before the state will have a preliminary action plan ready, and several more years of planning and development before any of the actual projects would get under way.

Irene D’Agostino and her son John, who own Martha Grace Real Estate in Montauk, said they attended the local presentation to comment on the study they’ve heard so much about throughout the years. Concerned for their business and their community, Ms. D’Agostino said she found the results of the study, as they relate to Montauk, to have a lot of “gray area.”

“Is there a timetable for this? It’s open-ended,” Mr. D’Agostino said. “Do we know what the cost will be? Astronomical. Are we going to be blown away? It’s 50-50. Could be. In the best-case scenario, we need all of our areas protected, but that doesn’t seem to be feasible.”

Mr. Couch said he heard residents’ concerns about downtown Montauk and that separate projects to protect the area were feasible—including a project that calls for hard structures built on the beaches to slow erosion—but it’s a question of what would be supported on a federal and state level.

All of the proposals and considerations in the report are also colored by the possibility that critics will label them a colossal waste of money.

“For 50 years, we’ve just been putting sand on beaches and letting it get washed away,” said Alan Fuchs, director of the Bureau of Flood Protection for the State Department of Environmental Conservation. “But at what point is that worth the expense? Are these houses we’re protecting going to survive another 50 years regardless of what we do?”

Cliff Jones, an engineer at the Army Corps, said that no matter what is done along the beaches, it will not prevent breaches and overwashes in the event of a Category 3 hurricane—the estimated strength of the 1938 hurricane. How far governments and communities are willing to go in “buying down the risk” of damage from a major storm remains to be seen.

“We want a process that, 50 years from now, we’re better off and don’t have to spend all these millions and millions again,” he said.

Money, of course, is going to be the final arbiter of which projects are done and which aren’t. The sand transfer efforts at the inlets are estimated in the plan to cost between $15 million and $25 million per four-year cycle. Major breach prevention efforts could be double that cost, though on a one-time basis.

Westhampton-based coastal geologist Aram Terchunian said there should be no question that renourishment and bolstering beaches be continued.

“We’ve been doing this for 50 years, and it’s worked,” he said. “Look at Coney Island, built in 1926. It’s the oldest engineered beach in the country, and it’s not going anywhere.”

Staff writer Erin Geismar contributed to this story.

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