Rebuilding Montauk Beaches

Town board approves 11 recommendations
Portions of the downtown Montauk oceanfront suffered severe erosion during the winter of 2012-13. Hampton Pix

    An erosion control committee appointed by the East Hampton Town Board in December presented it on Tuesday with 11 recommendations to deal with the destruction of the beach and dunes on the ocean at Montauk, and, in an unusual show of unanimity, board members agreed to move forward on them. The recommendations were summarized at the board’s work session by Drew Bennett, an engineer who is the committee’s chairman.
    “We had a very huge wake-up call this year, and Montauk is on the brink,” Town Supervisor Bill Wilkinson said, referring to the devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy and the series of storms that followed. “So any of these things we can do, let’s get started.”
    As a first step, the committee recommended immediate beach nourishment, adding a minimum of 50,000 cubic yards of sand from existing local sources to the beach from Ditch Plain through the Montauk commercial district. The town would also seek permits for beach “scraping” — moving sand from the beach to create dunes (during those seasons when sand is naturally deposited) and to install fencing to trap and build up sand.
    First among the committee’s long-term recommendations is the creation of an engineered 2.3-mile, 200-foot-wide beach for the area. An engineered beach is one that has been rebuilt according to a design by coastal engineers. Once designated by the Army Corps of Engineers as “engineered,” beaches become eligible for federal aid and must remain public.
    Mr. Wilkinson said yesterday that the designation would help guarantee a place for the town on the queue vying for federal aid. “To reserve a parking place . . . to do a beach erosion project from just east of the trailer park [at Ditch Plain] to Oceanside on the west side of downtown,” he said.
    However, the committee has not ruled out a buyout plan for shoreline properties in peril. In collaboration with the state and with federal agencies, the committee recommended that the town develop such plans with owners willing to sell, perhaps using money from the community preservation fund.
     Mr. Bennett estimated that long-term beach building in Montauk would require approximately one million cubic yards of sand from offshore. Although the committee had previously discussed  a revetment along that Montauk stretch of beach, no groins or seawalls are now envisioned.
    “We don’t want to have an armor across the downtown commercial district,” Mr. Bennett said. “We admit, if we fail, that’s what we’ll have.”
    However, as the process of rebuilding the beach and dunes along 2.3 miles could take up to three years, the committee has recommended that the town allow property owners to protect the foundations of their buildings with buried rocks or concrete blocks.
    At present, only sand or textile “geotubes” filled with sand are allowed in the ocean zone, under the town’s Local Waterfront Revitalization Program. That would have to be amended. The committee has suggested that be done, along with the creation of a new coastal erosion zone, zone five, for the area where rocks and concrete would be permitted.
    “Someone will have to do a detailed analysis,” Mr. Bennett said, to determine if replenished sand dunes and a new engineered beach would be enough to protect downtown Montauk from ocean flooding, or, he said, “whether the dunes will have to be reinforced.” The Army Corps could be tapped to design the project, or the town could hire private engineers.
    “The issue comes down to whether or not we’re going to have to swallow a recommendation of a hard structure,”    Councilman Dominick Stanzione said.
    “If there is strong objection to what the Army Corps proposes, then it might make sense to get a private coastal engineering firm involved,” Councilman Peter Van Scoyoc said.

Funding Questions
    Funding the project is another question, but Representative Timothy Bishop, queried yesterday, was optimistic about federal aid for Long Island. “We’re very close to be where we want to go,” he said.
    An internal Army Corps position on Sandy-related work was made public on March 11, he said, in which the Corps determined that the beaches from Fire Island to Montauk are “under construction,” agency code meaning that projects within the zone are eligible for 100 percent federal funding.
    “That position now has to be approved by the Office of Management and Budget,” Mr. Bishop said. “We think it will.”
    Assuming that it is, Mr. Bishop said the Corps would then have to prioritize shoreline projects. Among them are the realignment of the Fire Island shoreline, the repair of the beach immediately west of Shinnecock, work at an engineered beach at Westhampton Dunes, and at Tiana Beach near East Quogue. “And then the one I’m pushing real hard for — a downtown Montauk beach renourishment project. I’ve told the Army Corps this is a must-have for me. I hope they will be responsive,” Mr. Bishop said.
    If federal funds do not become available “within a reasonable amount of time,” however, Mr. Bennett said that the town should look into creating a tax district through which property owners can provide the funds or identify an alternative source.What’s still missing, Mr. Stanzione said, is a way “to give property owners an immediate solution without having to resort to violating the code.” The creation of a new ocean zone with revised regulations “is an extended process,” he said. “In the interim, we have no solution to the immediate problem.”
     “Giving property owners maximum flexibility as soon as possible should be our first priority,” he said, while bearing in mind the ultimate longer-term goals. 
     The committee had “lengthy discussions about what’s an emergency, and what’s temporary,” Mr. Van Scoyoc said.
    Even before sand could be added to the beach this spring, “you could easily lose buildings,” Mr. Bennett acknowledged. “In the Montauk commercial district, they’re all threatened.”
    Mr. Bennett said the committee had based its discussions on information from the United States Geological Survey that erosion in Montauk is expected to proceed at 21/2 feet per year; results of a blue-ribbon study predicting that sea level will rise 10 inches between now and 2050, likely causing a 50 to 100-foot recession of the beach dunes within 17 to 30 years (which would move the dune line in Montauk back to South Emerson Street), and the committee’s inventory of existing construction in the affected Montauk area.
    Though some of the buildings are on pilings, Mr. Bennett said, none meet Federal Emergency Management Agency standards for construction that could withstand a so-called 100-year flood. While smaller buildings could potentially be raised, it is neither practically nor economically feasible to raise up the larger ones, he said.
    Mr. Bennett said that the committee focused initially on the Montauk ocean beach, but had agreed that if the group was successful in developing useful recommendations there, it would turn its attention to erosion in other areas.
    However, said Mr. Van Scoyoc, who with Councilwoman Theresa Quigley were town board liaisons to the committee, “We don’t have a catastrophic plan” should the next hurricane make a more direct hit. “We don’t have a plan in place as to how to have long-term recovery.” Development of such a plan is among the actions called for in the waterfront revitalization plan, he said.
    That plan, the committee said in its final recommendation, should be revisited by town officials periodically, and revision made if needed.
With Reporting by Russell Drumm