The Future Seen In a Photograph

Challenges are ahead for East Hampton policymakers in regard to the town’s entire shoreline
Jane Umanoff

A reader sent in a photograph this week taken on Gerard Drive in Springs on Saturday during the blizzard. Taken roughly around the time of the morning high tide on what is known as the Second Causeway, it shows a raging Gardiner’s Bay surging where the road ought to be. Only you can’t see the road, only riled dark-gray water and feathery white spume.

We bring this up not only because Jane Umanoff’s photograph is so arresting, but for what it says about the challenges that are ahead for East Hampton policymakers in regard to the town’s entire shoreline.

Montauk might command the headlines, what with outrage over the Army Corps of Engineers’ sandbag seawall, but officials will also have to come to terms with assaults on the bayside. Gerard Drive will obviously be high on the priority list, but to do what? Like portions of Dune Road in Southampton, a multimillion-dollar project to elevate the pavement might be called for, but so too might a further-sighted effort to eliminate houses from its lower-slung portions and return their sites to nature. Meanwhile, the community preservation fund, which could be tapped for this, appears likely to be skimmed by up to 20 percent for a range of too-loosely defined water quality projects, if an extension of the law is approved by voters in a November referendum,  

Where the money is going to come from for a sensible coastal program of retreat is, of course, a very good question. For the time being, town officials seem content to believe that federal dollars will pour in as part of the Army Corps’s Fire Island to Montauk Point Reformulation Project. We’ll believe that when we see the check. And anyway, the last thing the Corps is interested in is stepping back from the danger zones. 

Meanwhile, the deal on the Montauk work looms as a financial disaster for the town — and Suffolk County — both of which agreed to cover the cost of keeping the sandbag wall covered with sand. Last weekend’s storm did a pretty good job of sweeping away thousands of tons of trucked-in ugly yellow fill, which, had the job been completed, would have been Suffolk and East Hampton taxpayers’ responsibility to replace.

What is so frustrating about coastal policy is that officials seem incapable of enforcing existing rules, much less of coming up with a strategy for the long term. We hope that the East Hampton Town Board at least made time to visit the visual hell that was the Montauk beach in the aftermath of Saturday’s storm. And we hope they see Jane Umanoff’s picture of Gerard Drive.

Together, they are enough to make one fear for the future of this town. Supervisor Larry Cantwell and the rest of the town board are not paid to wallow in despair, they are paid to do something. Waiting for the Army Corps and its anachronistic approach just won’t cut it.