East Hampton Considers Options For Protecting Downtown Montauk, Beaches

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Time is of the essence as East Hampton Town faces a looming decision on which of several U.S. Army Corps of Engineers-drafted plans to apply toward shoring up its vulnerable, low-lying downtown—a decision so important that Supervisor Bill Wilkinson this week called it “critical to Montauk’s survival.”

At issue is how to protect the hamlet’s business district from getting pummeled by waves during future storms, while also protecting the neighboring ocean beaches from being scoured away.

The urgency stems from the ephemeral nature of the federal funds to cover the initial construction. Montauk and Fire Island were fast-tracked post-Superstorm Sandy for “emergency repair projects,” a spin-off of the larger and long-awaited Fire Island to Montauk Point Reformulation Study, or FIMPS, project. Although there is no hard deadline, if East Hampton misses its chance, the pot of money could easily go elsewhere, officials warned.

“The reality is that Montauk has never received a federal dollar for its beaches—never’s a long time,” Mr. Wilkinson said this week. “But it can be corrected quickly if we don’t lose the opportunity. There are plenty of towns that are west of us, plenty of residents that will embrace the Army Corps of Engineers instead of challenging the Army Corps. I’m all up for open debate, but I think the stars have aligned for once.”

He strongly emphasized U.S. Representative Tim Bishop’s critical role in turning around the Army Corps’ opinion of Montauk, from unworthy of funds to justifying the federal government’s return on investment.

Congress this year approved $700 million in funding to rebuild beaches and for other protections for communities along Long Island’s entire south shore, but Montauk got pulled out for special attention following Superstorm Sandy.

The supervisor, a Montauk resident, equated the magnitude of the problem to the massive debt his administration inherited from his predecessor: “We came into the town with a fiscal crisis, and we’re leaving the town with a different type of crisis: downtown Montauk and how we address it.”

Steve Couch, chief of the Army Corps’ coastal section of the New York district, presented five options to the Town Board at a packed special meeting last Thursday, September 26, with the intention of preparing further details on each alternative, as well as cost estimates and economic analyses to determine the benefit-to-cost ratio of each. That report is estimated to be available in early November.

Two of the options stand out in Mr. Wilkinson’s mind, he said on Monday: placing sand to create a feeder beach, and installing a buried seawall. A plan to install groins has effectively been eliminated because of widespread displeasure with groins among residents and a belief that they contribute to beach erosion. An alternative that calls for acquiring beachfront property, possibly by condemning motels, would be unpractical, the supervisor said.

“The tourist doesn’t come to Montauk to look at the woods,” he said. “You can’t relocate this hotel or motel onto a ballfield.”

The alternatives were laid out by the Army Corps last week. The first calls for placing roughly 120,000 cubic yards of sand to create a feeder beach that would, over time, nourish westerly beaches. This idea was originally part of the overall draft FIMPS proposal prior to Superstorm Sandy and is the only alternative currently proven to have the positive benefit-to-cost ratio required to be economically justified, according to Chris Gardner, spokesman for the Army Corps’ New York division.

The second alternative calls for constructing a 15-foot-high dune and 90-foot-wide beach berm; a berm, according to the Army Corps, refers to a wide, flat sandy beach, essentially where beachgoers lay their towels. Because of the width required, it would likely involve real estate requirements, like condemning motels, that could drive up the initial costs.

The third option calls for constructing just a 90-foot-wide beach berm. The fourth would construct a 15-foot-high dune—considered “armored” because it would have a seawall within it—and a 35-foot-wide beach berm.

The fifth option, considered unlikely, calls for building a 15-foot-high dune, a 90-foot-wide beach berm, and groins that taper off to manage sand movement.

Although the town’s Local Waterfront Revitalization Plan questioned and basically prevented hard structures from being placed on the south shore of town, Mr. Wilkinson noted this week that the plan made clear it was a snapshot in time, to be updated for certain conditions.

In order for the Corps to move forward with an alternative, it must have local support and economic justification, or a positive benefit-to-cost ratio, Mr. Gardner said. Those are still being calculated and take into account the costs of initial construction, real estate requirements and long-term maintenance that could include future beach nourishment.

All the alternatives would offer the same level of risk reduction, except for the beach feeder option, which would provide less, according to the Corps.

The Corps expects to make a recommendation to the town later this fall. Once the town makes a selection, environmental reviews and detailed design work would follow. The goal, if a suitable alternative is selected, is to begin construction in late 2014, Mr. Gardner said. Fire Island work is set to begin in early 2014.

Initial construction would be 100-percent federally funded, while the cost of future nourishments would be shared, with the federal government paying a portion each time, and the remainder being funded through a combination of state and Suffolk County funds. New York State would sign the cost-sharing agreement with the federal government regarding nourishments, but it would then have its own sub-cost-sharing agreement with the county, Mr. Gardner said.

The issue of hiring an outside consultant to help the town figure out which option is best came up at the special meeting and was expected to pop up again at the Town Board’s work session on Tuesday, Mr. Wilkinson said. But, he said, “we’re dealing with a first-class operation, and the use of consultants is something that I don’t think we have the time or luxury to chose.”

Jeremy Samuelson, the executive director of the Concerned Citizens of Montauk, or CCOM, said this week that his organization is “happy that after 40 years of working on FIMPS, the Army Corps has finally shared blueprints with the public and elected officials.”

He cautioned, however, that the costs remain outstanding questions, and said the Corps needs to flesh out the alternatives.

“The goal of CCOM is that Montauk remains a beach town with a beach,” he said, noting that it has urged the Town Board to seek outside advice. “This decision will define Montauk’s relationship to the ocean for decades to come. It’s critical that our interest is to do the right thing, rather than just doing something.”

State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. urged the Corps and the town to reach consensus quickly, but added that he does not want a rushed decision.

Suffolk County Legislator Jay Schneiderman agreed that time is of the essence and that it is a rare opportunity to get federal funds to shore up Montauk.

“I think we have to do something to stop the egress of water into downtown Montauk,” Mr. Wilkinson said. “I don’t want to contemplate the alternative, and I don’t want to wake up one day and say, ‘I wish they would have done that, when we asked them to do it,’ because at that point in time it’s too late, and too many people’s lives, livelihood and futures will be impacted.”

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