Why Montauk Matters

A capitulation to political expediency and a failure of leadership from Town Hall to Albany and Washington

As the starting date nears for a United States Army Corps of Engineers project to build a giant artificial dune reinforced at its core with thousands of massive sandbags, it is critical that the public and policymakers understand what is really at stake.

The question is not whether to protect the handful of private and commercial properties believed to be at most immediate risk. What matters most in Montauk is whether hard-won regulations concerning the environment and management of the coastal zone will be ignored by officials at every level of government. What is unfolding in the rush to do something, anything, is a capitulation to political expediency and a failure of leadership from Town Hall to Albany and Washington.

Setting aside the opinion of a number of coastal experts that the project is doomed to failure and will leave downtown Montauk without a beach to spread a blanket upon, the way the plan has been handled undermines local and state law and, by setting a giant-sized precedent, virtually assures the collapse of meaningful environmental review of projects along the shore.

Time was that the State Environmental Quality Review Act, or SEQRA, was the first line of defense. However, in a September decision, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation announced its view that the 3,100-foot-long project that would depend on nearly 200,000 tons of trucked-in sand will have no environmental impact.

Time was, too, that East Hampton Town’s own prohibition on coastal structures of this sort along the ocean was strictly upheld. But in an August memo, a senior town planner gave state officials all the cover they needed to dance around the ban. This throws into jeopardy not only East Hampton’s laws, but those of most East End towns and villages that adopted similar regulations. It was as if we all woke up and it was the 1960s all over again, when anything went.

Also not thought through is that the Montauk seawall is predicated on the idea that the Army Corps’s far larger Fire Island to Montauk Point Reformulation Plan will happen. This is dangerous for two reasons. Congressional approval of the money it would take is far from a sure thing, and, more significantly, it binds future leaders to a follow the Corps’s stand and fight approach, rather than admit that the only realistic course is retreat.

It can only be speculated why officials have been so willing to bend the law to make the Army Corps Montauk plan a reality. It could be that once the previous town board cast the die, the current members thought that they had to go along. That is no excuse.