Surfrider Asks Town To Protect Montauk’s Beaches, Even If It Means Moving Motels

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How best to save downtown Montauk and its ocean beaches from storm surges still remains a contentious issue, while East Hampton Town awaits a recommendation from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on what to do.

In December, the Eastern Long Island Chapter of Surfrider Foundation took matters into its own hands by documenting the conditions of the ocean beach and dune.

Its findings indicate that the natural primary dune, which extends from South Emery Street west to the bluffs south of Old Street at the western end of downtown Montauk, is in excellent condition, according to Michael Bottini, the chapter’s co-chairman. He said the opposite is true of the stretch east of South Emery Street, where most of the beach has no primary dune. That, he said, is the result of motel and condo construction where the original dune was located.

Mr. Bottini and the Surfrider Foundation are asking that the primary dune be rebuilt in alignment with the natural dune, even if it means some hotels and motels move their facilities.

“It’s going to impact motels, and no one is interested in putting anybody out of business, but this is unfortunately what we believe is the only realistic solution to the problem,” he added.

Former Supervisor Bill Wilkinson had called the idea impractical last September when Town Board members were discussing how to use federal funds to build up the beach.

In 2013, Congress approved $700 million in funding to rebuild beaches and for other protections for communities along Long Island’s entire south shore.

Steve Couch, chief of the Army Corps’ coastal section of the New York district, presented five options to the Town Board on September 26.

Two options seemed to be likely solutions in Mr. Wilkinson’s mind: placing sand to create a feeder beach that would nourish westerly beaches over time, or installing a buried seawall. Over the weeks following that, the suggestion to place geotubes, or large bags pumped full of sand, under the beach surfaced as well. Geotubes are said to build up sand like a seawall, but have the advantage of not being hard structures, leaving open the possibility of removing them in the future.

This idea has caught on with quite a few people, including Supervisor Larry Cantwell, who has said he does not support a rock wall, but a geotube-reinforced dune to “get as wide of a beach as we can get.”

Other options—installing groins or acquiring beachfront property and possibly condemning motels to save the dune—had been largely eliminated.

But Surfrider believes rebuilding the dune back to where the natural dune is, west of Emery Street, would have the dual benefit of providing protection for a large section of downtown Montauk while starting a critical, long-term plan that “best deals with the nature of our dynamic shoreline,” Mr. Bottini said.

According to Surfrider, the natural primary dune from South Emery Street to South Eton Street, basically running the length of Kirk Park Beach, measured between 18 to 24 feet in height and 120 to 180 feet in width. The average distance between the new moon high tide line and the seaward toe of the dune was 70 feet—an indication that the dune provided “excellent” protection from storm surge and surf during Sandy, Mr. Bottini said.

The section of beach east of South Emery Street, however, has no primary dune, Mr. Bottini said. Distances between the new moon high tide line and the seaward edge of decks and foundations found at the Ocean End, Ocean Surf and Ocean Beach and Royal Atlantic motels ranged between 56 and 72 feet, according to Surfrider’s measurements.

“When compared to distances measured at the natural dune to the west, these measurements confirm that portions of the motels are located directly atop where the natural dune line would be,” Mr. Bottini said. “Let’s call a spade a spade here. Motels obliterated the dune and were built in harm’s way knowingly.”

Rebuilding the dune seaward of the natural dune line, as some have suggested, would be very difficult to maintain, he added, and putting in hard structures, even geotubes, would create another set of problems.

“In terms of what we know of coastal shoreline dynamics, [motels] need to get out of the way of reconstructing the primary dune,” Mr. Bottini said. “It would do the best job at protecting downtown Montauk for the future.”

Not everybody agrees, however.

“It’s never going to happen—it’s crazy to even think about it,” said Carl Darenberg, the secretary and treasurer of the Montauk Citizens Voice, a relatively new citizens organization. “There are 2,000 rooms in Montauk and a lot of them are on the ocean. That’s why people come to Montauk. If you put them back in farmland, it’s not going to be the same.”

Another member, Perry “Chip” Duryea III, said the prospect of moving the motels is not only cost-prohibitive, but raises the question of where they would be moved to.

“Surfrider is very well intentioned, but the fact of the matter is, downtown Montauk isn’t wide enough, north to south, to consider moving buildings back from the dune line,” he said. “Motels in downtown generate a lot of property taxes for East Hampton Town, that’s purely from an economic view. If you take away that part of the infrastructure, you’re going to see a substantial drop in revenue for the town and in hundreds of occupancy units for people that come here in the summer months.”

Geotubes are the way to go, Mr. Duryea said. Using the sand-filled bags will satisfy people in most camps.

“It is the option that satisfied the broadest spectrum of people,” he said. “It provides a degree of protection along the dune line without having a hard structure.”

Mr. Cantwell said Surfrider’s information is helpful when looking at the historical condition of the beach and dunes, and helps provide a better perspective, but that the town must wait for a recommendation from the Army Corps of Engineers. He said the Army Corps has been delayed because its Fire Island project ran into complications.

After the town makes a selection, environmental reviews and detailed design work will follow. The goal was to begin construction in late 2014.

If the project goes through, 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 for sand renourishments, but it would then have its own sub-cost sharing agreement with the county.

Mr. Bottini said that town officials need to act carefully, and even consider adding protection for Ditch Plains to the mix. He said there is only one shot.

“If we don’t do the right thing, we’re not going to get a second chance,” he said. “We want to see that federal money used wisely and see an action plan implemented that reflects what we know and not more denial of how coastal processes work.”

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