Southampton Village officials have been cleared to continue issuing Coastal Erosion Hazard Area permits by the State Department of Environmental Conservation—a decision that one environmentalist said flew in the face of logic.
In April, the state agency asked the village to temporarily refrain from issuing any new CEHA permits while the DEC reviewed recently approved and pending applications for bulkheads in the village, many of them stemming from Superstorm Sandy. Critics said the oceanfront property owners, with the blessing of village officials, were using the relaxed DEC oversight in the wake of the storm to build and expand shore-hardening structures beyond what are typically permitted in Southampton Town.
After reviewing the applications, the agency has given the Village Building Department permission to continue granting bulkhead permits, although it did not outline any findings to support the move.
The decision, which the village received last week in a letter dated July 19, baffled Robert DeLuca, president of the Group for the East End, who said the DEC is not doing its job to protect the public beaches in Southampton Village.
“The state is supposed to come to the rescue for programs like this,” Mr. DeLuca said. “I don’t understand how, on the one hand, the state can come in and say, ‘Yes, there is a violation here,’ but, on the other hand, say the village can go back to what they were doing.”
In a letter to the Building Department from Susan McCormick, chief of the Coastal Erosion Management Department for the DEC, Ms. McCormick said the village can expect to receive a full community assessment visit report sometime later this month that will outline the DEC’s findings.
“At this time, the department is lifting this request and the village may continue to review CEHA applications and issue approvals as appropriate,” the letter states.
According to Village Mayor Mark Epley, the review by the DEC was in response to complaints filed about nine permits issued since last October, when Sandy hit. Mr. Epley said that he requested the agency to review the village’s policies, adding that at the moment there are no pending applications for bulkheads.
“The letter tells me that we have been handling the process correctly,” Mr. Epley said. “But I am interested to see what the report says.”
Several Southampton Village homeowners constructed steel and stone seawalls to protect their oceanfront homes in the wake of the storm. The projects, which were allowed as post-storm emergency measures, skirted regional public policies that generally forbid new hard structures on the beach, although existing structures can be replaced.
Mr. DeLuca said many of the replacements after the storm changed the size, scale and scope of the hard structures and, in some cases, infringed upon the public portions of the beach to protect an individual homeowner’s property.
Mr. DeLuca said he is concerned that the village has opened a Pandora’s box in terms of beach structures, in that, as more bulkheads and jetties are added, other homeowners will be forced to do the same to protect their own properties. He also said the village should be forced to revoke the permits granted to homeowners who changed the size of their bulkhead, and that the homeowners should be forced to remedy any violations.
“There needs to be some way to reconcile the violations that are there and remediate them, both physically and financially,” Mr. DeLuca said. “It doesn’t do anyone any good to know that there is a $10,000 fine somewhere in the state general fund. If someone has a bulkhead that is too big, they should have to make it smaller.”
Even though Mr. DeLuca does not agree with the decision, he said he is hopeful that the report will outline steps to remediate problems with the recently installed, or reinstalled, bulkheads.
Mr. DeLuca said he is hopeful the village will take the necessary steps to protect the beach in the future. In the 1990s, he said, Southampton Town developed a plan for emergency beach remediation that covers hard structures on the beach. That plan took time and money, but ultimately became an unbiased and viable plan, he said.
This week, Mr. Epley said the village does intend to create a plan that will determine how permits are issued in the future, including when there is an emergency situation like a hurricane. After the village receives the official report from the DEC in the next few weeks, village officials plan to sit down with Southampton Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst, members of the Southampton Town Trustees and others to develop an effective and cost-efficient plan to protect the area.
“Protecting the beach is the most important thing at this point,” Mr. Epley said. “We have to develop a game plan that would decide what type of beach replenishment and bulkhead plan we need to have in place. We need a master plan.”