The Montauk Lighthouse will undergo repair beginning this summer and major restoration of its protective seawall is to begin in the fall. These are costly endeavors — more than $1 million for the tower and $24 million for the stonework — but in the minds of many, well worth it. The Light is more than the star of innumerable Instagram shots, it is a national historic site and among New York State’s most recognized landmarks.
It is said that when President Washington authorized its construction in 1792, the structure was expected to endure for 200 years. Now well past that mark, the limestone-and-rubble beacon needs work to survive. There has been a boulder seawall armoring the foot of the bluff for decades and the United States Army Corps of Engineers is now to reconfigure and widen it.
The work on the Light was inevitable, but replacing the stones below it was not. At one time, serious consideration was given to moving the Lighthouse and the associated building back hundreds of feet from the edge. That idea never really got serious consideration and was abandoned as too costly.
The Army Corps earned a bad reputation in Montauk following Hurricanes Irene and Sandy, when its $9 million effort to protect downtown oceanfront motels and residences disfigured natural dunes. In a sense, that work was designed to fail, deemed only temporary until a long-term solution could be found. Promises remained unfulfilled and town and county taxpayers were left with the cost of now-annual sand replacement to protect the area by restoring the dunes as a natural buffer and replacing the most at-risk structures with new ones farther inland. Critics, this page included, saw a missed opportunity. Now, with the corps returning to Montauk, questions have been raised about the future of the Point itself.
The Army Corps is good at what it does — building walls — but it has not demonstrated capability for coherent, environmentally sensitive planning. In fact, it has not shown the ability to plan at all: A much-heralded Montauk to Fire Island “reformulation” strategy has been in the works since 1962, when it was approved by Congress. And at Montauk Point, there is no plan when one thinks ahead 10 or 20 years.
Here is the problem: Sea level is rising relentlessly, and the rate is expected only to increase in the future. The corps’s stone armor will protect the Lighthouse from ruin, but the boulders will taper off on both the north and south sides of the Point, exposing the land there to erosion. Eventually, the Atlantic Ocean will scour its way behind the hill on which the Lighthouse stands, threatening to cut it off from the rest of the Island. And then what? This is a riddle no one has an answer for.
In the immediate future, the message of the Montauk Point seawall will be to stand and fight, exactly the wrong approach when coastal experts and environmental groups unanimously agree that retreat is the only sensible option. Unfortunately, the iconic Light may become a symbol in another way — for how not to respond to the rising sea.