Save the Structures, But Lose the Beach

“Don’t Bag Our Beach!”

The local chapter of the Surfrider Foundation sent around a photograph last week that made an inescapable point about Montauk’s downtown beach: There just isn’t that much of it any more, and the planned fix by the Army Corps of Engineers may well wipe away what little is left.

In the image, six members of the group appear roughly arm’s length apart, holding placards that when read together spell out the message: “Don’t Bag Our Beach!” Arrayed in a line from the water’s edge to a partially buried row of snow fencing, they span the 50-foot width of the project on which work could begin within months. By design, the group has said, the beach itself would be gone, an observation supported by the Army Corps’s own plan, available on the Town of East Hampton website.

Hoping to see this for ourselves, we went for a look the other day. Yes, Surfrider is right. At the end of the summer beach-building season, when you would expect the distance from the dunes to the water to be at its widest, there was only a narrow expanse. Guests at several motels, who sat on outside decks taking in the sunset, seemed to be perched above the water itself, with the buildings only one or two bad storms from the brink.

The Army Corps is getting ready to use money from the Hurricane Sandy relief package passed by Congress in a misguided effort to protect the row of motels and residences closest to the ocean there by installing a 3,100-foot-long barrier of sand bags. They would be filled with and initially covered by sand quarried from upland mines — something of great concern to the members of Surfrider and others.

Even worse, the bags would function as short-lived seawalls, resulting in the near-certain total loss of a passable beach and creating massive down-drift scouring to the west. Described by the corps as a temporary measure, the price tag would be approximately $9 million. And it is nothing less than a looming disaster.

Few experts who study the Atlantic Coast recommend anything other than structural retreat from eroding areas outside of the large cities. Here on the South Fork, where wide, clean beaches are an essential basis of the second-home and visitor economy, so-called solutions that result in the loss of quality shoreline are counter to the greater public interest.

The Army Corps plan for Montauk, if it is allowed to go forward, would do more harm than good. In an effort to protect the roughly 10 privately owned properties there, the beach itself, a cherished public asset, would be sacrificed. The notion that someday money would be forthcoming to pump sand in from offshore is little more than fanciful thinking; it cannot be the cornerstone of real-world policy. And without a multimillion-dollar ongoing source of funding, keeping the Montauk sand bags covered is a pipedream, one that, unfortunately, East Hampton Town and Suffolk officials appear ready to sign on to.

So far, the town has seemed to have taken an irresponsible hands-off approach, one that may violate its own Local Waterfront Revitalization Plan on coastal armoring and skirt rules requiring detailed, independent analysis. There are no reports on the corps’s proposal from the Natural Resources or Planning Departments and no sign of an independent environmental impact statement being prepared or a qualified coastal geologist on board. As critics have rightly charged, the Army Corps is guilty of relying on old science — or no science at all — and Town Hall is playing right along.

For its part, the Army Corps has produced a statement finding no significant environmental effects, based in part on a dubious designation of the thousands of bags filled with quarry sand as “nonstructural,” though they would function, by design, precisely the same way as a boulder, steel, or wood seawall. And the Corps’s notion that long-term damage from the sandbags would be mitigated by the Fire Island to Montauk Point project, which is now more than a half-century in the making with still no hope of progress, is just plain wrong.

It would be far better to set aside the money the corps has for Montauk as a down payment on a long-term approach to condemn and buy out the owners of the oceanfront properties, then build a high, more natural dune to protect the rest of the downtown. That would be a big-think, radical response, but anything less would only delay the inevitable, waste taxpayers’ money, and destroy the beach. The East Hampton Town Board needs to withdraw support for this project in a hurry.