Trustees, State Question Village Sea Wall Permits

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Criticism and skepticism continued to be focused on new steel walls erected on ocean beaches by two homeowners in Southampton Village, replacing hardened protections that already existed, ostensibly under emergency conditions created by Superstorm Sandy.

The State Department of Environmental Conservation confirmed that it was investigating the conditions under which permits were granted for the installation of the steel walls. Members of the Southampton Town Trustees also leveled pointed accusations of deception and dishonesty on the part of the property owners and the consultants who represented them in securing permits from the village and the DEC.

“My golly, the tricks people will play,” Town Trustee Fred Havemeyer said. “They drove the steel in behind the bulkhead, 5 feet higher than what is there, claiming they were just replacing an existing bulkhead.”

The steel walls were built by village homeowners Joshua Harris, co-founder of the giant hedge fund Apollo Global Management, and Mark Rachesky, co-chairman of Lions Gate Entertainment, based on permits issued by the Southampton Village Building Department and the DEC. Both properties already had wooden bulkheads across their ocean frontage, built by prior owners many decades ago, but the new structures stand several feet higher than what existed.

The Town Trustees—who have long claimed the right to regulate construction along the beaches and have barred the erection of hardened shoreline structures for 20 years—said that they were cut out of the permitting process by claims that the walls being erected were landward of the natural dune line, the limit of the Trustees’ authority.

While stalwart dunes might have once stood between the ocean and where the steel sheets were pounded into the beachhead, they have been lost to erosion, and in the wake of Sandy just a thin ribbon of sand separates them from the pounding ocean surf. One of the walls, erected last month in front of Mr. Rachesky’s estate, has become what coastal managers refer to as a “wet bulkhead,” meaning that at high tides the ocean laps at its base, the beach having been entirely eroded.

The Trustees are claiming that the owners and their consultants, First Coastal Corporation of Westhampton, have grossly misrepresented the conditions on both of the properties to take advantage of the wording in state permits granted during the post-storm emergency.

“They’ve come in with this pretext that this flimsy old staving, really just some wood planks laid against the dunes, is an old bulkhead,” Mr. Havemeyer said last week after inspecting the new steel wall across the front of one of the estates, off Gin Lane. “The state says that if a bulkhead is existing and functioning, and was damaged by the storm, it can be replaced. But to claim that flim-flam staving was a bulkhead is just preposterous. They’re just thumbing their nose at the DEC.”

The permits issued for the two projects both claim the work will replace an “existing timber bulkhead” in place. The permits require that any new structure be within 18 inches of the original in height. Mr. Havemeyer said that First Coastal had brought an application to the Trustees two years ago for the erection of a steel bulkhead, 5 feet higher than the existing wooden ones, which is buried beneath the sand. The Trustees denied that application. The new steel walls erected last week effectively mirror the one requested at the time, he said, and are based on the height of the staving atop the old bulkhead.

First Coastal Corp. owner Aram Terchunian declined to comment this week on the work done at Mr. Harris and Mr. Rachesky’s properties.

Mr. Havemeyer said that the Trustees have discussed the possibility of suing the homeowners to have the steel sheeting removed or drastically altered, but said they will wait and see what steps the DEC will take.

Bill Fonda, a spokesman for the DEC, confirmed last week that the agency’s staff have visited the site of the two steel walls and are reviewing the details of the permits issued to the homeowners.

The state delegates the authority to issue individual permits under its Coastal Erosion Hazard Area law to local municipal agents, but reserves the right to revoke permits or that authority if it determines the local agents have misrepresented state policy. In 2010, the state issued a report accusing Quogue Village of ignoring the regulations in the state laws and halted the village’s authority to issue permits for more than a year while it investigated permits already issued. Ultimately, the village was allowed to continue its permitting authority after agreeing to a wide range of new steps in the review of applications.

Village officials this week met with Mr. Terchunian, the consultant whose company designed and represented the Harris and Rachesky, to discuss the use of hardened structures along the shoreline. In the wake of Sandy, several village officials seem to have adopted the position that erecting hardened structures along the oceanfront is wise, considering that most of the properties east of Lake Agawam already have decades-old bulkheads.

Mayor Mark Epley has said he is particularly concerned about the historic Dune Church, which has no hardened protection but is bounded on either side by properties protected by hardened walls.

“The philosophy is that they don’t harden beaches—the Town Trustees,” Mr. Epley said at the Village Board meeting on Thursday. “Common sense would say, 95 percent of everybody around you is hardened, you should do that and protect that shore.”

At a meeting of the Town Trustees on Monday, though, Mr. Havemeyer pointed to a series of aerial photos taken this week showing the Southampton Village shoreline. He noted that in the stretch of beach where bulkheads front most of the properties the beach about half the width as they are to the west of Lake Agawam, where there are no bulkheads or sea walls.

“The proof is in the pudding right there, wherever you have these walls the beach is gone,” he said. “The long-range prospect for all this steel is no beaches in the village at all.”

Staff writer Shaye Weaver contributed to this story.

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