Southampton Village Officials See Benefits, and Potential, In Westhampton Jetties


As they try to find a balance between accepted science regarding the preservation of ocean beaches and the desire of homeowners to protect their oceanfront properties, Southampton Village officials have landed on an old “solution” long ago abandoned: jetties.

After a tour last week of the Westhampton Beach Village shoreline, the members of the Southampton Village Board this week said they were largely convinced that their own village could benefit from the construction of long stone groins, as jetties built along a continuous shoreline are known, on its oceanfront.

“When you look at the groins and the multiple dunes there, and how it survived [Superstorm Sandy], you can’t help but wonder: Is that something we should be looking at?” Mayor Mark Epley said this week. “Based on what I saw, I would not be opposed to a series of groins being built, and a program that backfills them with sand, the way they have there.”

All five members of the board, as well as a cluster of other village officials, visited Westhampton Beach and the neighboring village of West Hampton Dunes with coastal engineer Aram Terchunian last week.

Mr. Terchunian showed the Southampton delegation the broad system of dunes between homes and the ocean in Westhampton Beach that almost wholly weathered the lashing of Superstorm Sandy—a startling comparison to sections of Southampton Village, where no natural dunes remain at all. Walking across boardwalks that extended hundreds of feet through tall dunes, thick with natural grasses growing in swales behind the seaward end of the dunes and the homes inland, the Southampton lawmakers commented that the only place in Southampton with similar conditions is the stretch of beach to the east of the Shinnecock Inlet, where the inlet jetties have likewise tamped down erosion by trapping sand on the shoreline.

“For me, seeing was believing,” Southampton Village Trustee Bill Hattrick said. “Westhampton is in a position that I dearly wish we were in. It sure looks like a true solution instead of just a Band-Aid.”

Southampton Village has been at the center of a recent whirlwind of controversy over the construction of new steel and stone seawalls to protect oceanfront homes after three homeowners skirted accepted recent public policies to fortify their oceanfronts. Critics say that as sea levels rise, such hardened barriers eventually will cause the ocean beaches to vanish entirely, because they cannot migrate landward. The effects of the groins in Westhampton Beach would seem to provide protection against an enormous amount of sea level rise.

But while a solution to the vexing issues that have plagued those in charge of managing Long Island’s economically critical and environmentally sensitive oceanfront appeared to be laid out before them in 200-foot strips of quarry stones, the Southampton lawmakers acknowledged that seeing groins like those built in Westhampton in the 1960s constructed anew is a dim hope at best.

“I don’t think they’ll allow us to put groins here very soon,” Village Trustee Nancy McGann lamented. “But I really do think groins are the answer for the future.”

The use of stone groins—a wall of stones extending into the ocean, perpendicular to the shoreline—to trap sand that normally would be washed away by natural currents and storm waves was a popular solution employed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to combat erosion on coastlines in the first half of the 20th century and the post-war decades. But the negative effects of the practice—namely, the fact that groins interrupt the natural flow of sand, leaving areas downdrift of groins starved of sand—led the Army Corps to largely abandon the practice in the 1970s.

There are just two major ocean beach groin clusters on the South Fork: the dozen built in Westhampton, and four in East Hampton Village, three of which were built after an influential homeowner convinced politicians to re-route money from the Westhampton project to construct three groins in front of his house at a Georgica Beach. A fourth groin was built to the east of Main Beach. A single, smaller groin exists at Ditch Plains beach in Montauk, helping to create the area’s legendary surfing conditions but also causing severe erosion of the popular crescent-shaped beach immediately to its west.

The Georgica Beach groins, popularly known as the Georgica Jetties, have been blamed for the decades of chronic erosion along the ocean beaches in Wainscott, Sagaponack and Bridgehampton, where residents have committed to spending some $25 million on a massive renourishment—2.5 million of tons of sand—to address the vulnerability of homes in the area because of the anemic beaches.

As the Southampton Village officials stood overlooking the broad dunes of Westhampton Beach last Thursday with Mr. Terchunian, the coastal expert explained that the key to reaping the benefits of the groins in Westhampton Beach, without suffering the ill effects, is also spending millions of dollars to pump sand ashore, burying the jetties beneath a broad engineered beachhead and allowing sand beneath the waters’ surface to continue flowing naturally along the shoreline.

Mr. Terchunian, whose Westhampton-based company, First Coastal, is at the fore of most efforts to protect homes from the sea in Southampton and East Hampton towns, also showed the Southampton officials the beaches of West Hampton Dunes, which he held up as the ultimate example of the potential for negative effects of groins or jetties but also of the potential to dampen their negatives.

West Hampton Dunes, then just an unincorporated neighborhood of beach houses, was almost entirely destroyed in 1993 and 1994 after a series of nor’easters washed through the barrier beach, causing erosion that ultimately destroyed more than 100 homes. The homeowners sued Suffolk County and the Army Corps, blaming the erosion on the conditions caused by the construction of the Westhampton groins. A judge ordered that the county and federal government pay to completely rebuild the barrier island and to “fix” the Westhampton groins so they would not cause new erosion.

On Thursday, Mr. Terchunian pointed to the expensive regular beach nourishment but also careful efforts to allow natural dunes to grow along the oceanfront in the years since, for the village riding out Sandy without any damage to private property.

Nodding to the unlikelihood that the Army Corps would allow new groins to be built in the near future, and the necessity to protect its homes, most of the Southampton trustees said they think that a beach nourishment project likely is in the village’s future—the plans in Sagaponack conveniently providing them with a front-row seat to examine the costs and benefits of such an endeavor. But over the long term, as concerns about sea level rise heighten the struggle to hold back the sea, most thought that the obvious potential benefits of groins will come back onto the table.

“I think if we continue on the path we’re on, we will need beach nourishment at some point,” Village Trustee Michael Irving said. “But I’m not convinced that groins are not a tool we shouldn’t take a look at.”

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