A $28 Million Fix for Six Miles of Sandy Beach

From Sagaponack to Water Mill, oceanfront property owners would bear the cost of coastal restoration
Oceanfront residents from Water Mill to Sagaponack are weighing in about a $28 million beach nourishment project proposed to protect a declining six-mile stretch of beach. Carrie Ann Salvi

    “Dune loss is only going in one direction, the beaches are not coming back,” said Jeff Lignelli of Bridgehampton, who represented residents of the Bridgehampton Erosion Control District at an Aug. 30 Southampton Town hearing on a plan to rebuild eroded beaches from Water Mill to Sagaponack.
    Aerial photographs on the meeting room walls showed Mecox Road’s loss of 115 feet over 36 years and a loss of 70 feet at Potato Road during the same period.
    “Beach nourishment is the best option,” said Aram Terchunian, a coastal geologist with First Coastal Corporation, which the town hired in 2011 to prepare surveys, evaluate shoreline erosion, and develop alternate plans for restoring the six-mile stretch of coastline within the Bridgehampton and Sagaponack Erosion Control Districts, a project that would be paid for almost entirely by residents of the two special taxing districts.
    Residents of the two districts were offered three choices: beach nourishment, sea walls, which the town does not prefer, or “do nothing.” It was also noted that if a resident’s answer was that the town should pay, that would fall under the “do nothing” category, since the town, county, and state do not have the money needed to do that.
    Mr. Terchunian explained a plan to place 950,000 cubic yards of underwater sand from miles offshore closer inland along the coast, with the desired result that eventually the windblown sand from offshore would create a wider, more protective beach and dunes. First Coastal would work with its partner Coastal Science and Engineering to undertake the beach restoration.
    The hearing continued yesterday and will be open for comment again on Sept. 25 at 6 p.m. If the board authorizes the improvements, the beach restoration project will be put to residents of the two districts in a ballot referendum. It would proceed only if a majority of district voters approve it.
    Mr. Terchunian said at the Aug. 30 meeting that he has “a long history of undertaking these projects on the south shore,” and described successful efforts at the Shinnecock Inlet beach and Westhampton Dunes in 1995 and the area west of Shinnecock and on Fire Island in 1998. His firm was involved in both projects.
    Among those in attendance at the meeting were residents of the two erosion control districts, who were asked by the Southampton Town Board to share their thoughts on the proposal, which would be financed through the issuance of bonds.
    Southampton Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst made it clear that the project was requested by a group of homeowners who are concerned about the future of their beaches, and who wish to pay for replenishing them. She also said, in no uncertain terms, that the project was not something the town, county, or state would pay for, except where town-owned beaches were involved. Based on a formula developed by the board and those property owners who are in favor of the project, Bridgehampton oceanfront property owners would pay based on their linear footage, while Sagaponack residents would combine footage with appraised value.
    According to the town, the Bridgehampton Beach Erosion Control District’s share of the beach nourishment project would be approximately $11.7 million, an average of $148,000 per resident, based on linear frontage only. Over a 10-year period, the estimated annual tax for each parcel in that district would average about $14,650 on top of the regular tax bill.
    The total cost to the Sagaponack Erosion Control District would be approximately $13.3 million. The share of Ira Rennert, who owns a sprawling property there, would be approximately $2.1 million, or $211,000 annually. Excluding his share, a district homeowner’s average cost in Sagaponack would be $251,000 each, calculated with a combination of assessed value and linear ocean frontage.
    The town’s share for properties on Flying Point Road in Water Mill, Dune Road, Surfside Drive, and Jobs Lane in Bridgehampton, and, Daniel’s Lane and Sandune Court in Sagaponack would be $3 million over 10 years.
    Each district would also pay a $60,000 annual monitoring cost for 10 years.
    The project involves creating a sort of sand bar, primarily below the mean high water mark on land owned by New York State. Permits would be needed from the State Office of General Services and the State Department of Environmental Conservation, among others.
    Suitable sand samples have been discovered 50 miles offshore on the ocean floor, Mr. Terchunian explained, where an active beach existed 10,000 years ago when the sea level was lower. This information is critical for the public as well as for draggers, he said, who will want to know what they are dealing with before they submit bids. The “good looking sand” was on display for examination at the meeting last month, as were maps and spreadsheets detailing the costs to each homeowner.
    “It has worked incredibly well,” said Gary Vigiante, the mayor of Westhampton Dunes, which was rebuilt with a similar nourishment project. He said he heard similar concerns when the Westhampton Dunes project was being contemplated, comments like “It can’t be done,” or “It will be too expensive.” The result was a project that functioned even better than imagined, he said, calling it a “tremendous asset” with results including the reopening of Pike’s Beach, and “more piping plovers than ever seen.”
    “We’ve tried everything,” said Gary Ireland, whose family owns property in the Sagaponack Erosion Control District, and who has advocated for a solution on behalf of them and his neighbors. They have tried snow fencing, hay bales, trucked-in sand, and even created a village, he said, referring to the establishment of an independent Sagaponack Village. “This is the solution that I think may work,” he said.
    For the last 50 years, “Every homeowner that cares has trucked in their own sand,” said Alan Stillman of Sagaponack. He has lived on the beach for more than 30 years, he said, and seen erosion of two or three feet per year. Beach nourishment “is the least offensive and expensive methodology,” Mr. Stillman said. “There is no question that there is nobody else that can give to this town this kind of an ability to save six miles of beach.”
    “Let’s do it,” said Marilyn Kirkbright, who called herself a “poor, inland teacher.” She reminded the audience that during the Hurricane of 1938, Southampton Village was flooded. “If the barrier beach in Water Mill goes,” she said, “our ancient watermill and assets inland will go. It’s not just the oceanfront homes.”
    Stephen Storch of Water Mill suggested small jetties from Georgica Pond to Shinnecock Inlet, such as those used further west in Long Beach and Coney Island, to hold the sand in place. He added that the jetties would also create a habitat for marine life, referencing a book called “A Sand County Almanac.”
    Roz Cole, who has had a house on Dune Road in Bridgehampton for 40 years, said she is concerned that the project may result in other unintended consequences and does not want residents of the erosion control districts to be held responsible.
    John J. Bennett, a Southampton attorney, accused the board of trying to sidestep the state environmental quality review process, to which Kathleen Murray, the deputy town attorney said, “We are going through the SEQRA process, no action will be taken until SEQRA is done.”
    Councilwoman Bridget Fleming asked Mr. Terchunian about tests regarding the project’s environmental safety and impact on fish. “We are studying it carefully,” Mr. Terchunian said. He pointed to five environmental impact statements on the table and said the State Department of Environmental Conservation decided an environmental impact statement was not required for a similar project on Fire Island. Follow-up analysis of the projects in Westhampton Dunes, Fire Island, and Rockaway beaches show that “these communities rebound to natural levels within one year,” he said. “The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation requires sampling before and after, to verify that organisms have recolonized.”
    Tests recently of the proposed area where the sand would be mined show no vegetation, he said. A shallow, broad hole would be dug on a bare sandy bottom, he explained, where only small worms and sand dollars exist. Intermittent strips are dragged, he said, which allow recolonization to occur faster.
    William Marney, who has lived on the ocean in Bridgehampton for 46 years, said that if the $25 million spent for 60 feet of sand at the water’s edge can withstand the forces of Atlantic Ocean for more than one or two years, the plan will result in the increase of property value and allow people to continue enjoying the “celebrated beaches of the Hamptons.” Therefore, he said, “the cost of this project should be shared by all town property owners.” To put the burden “on a small group of people” is “unfair, immoral, illegal, and probably unconstitutional,” he said, and threatened a class action suit to prevent it.
    “My house is 40 to 50 feet closer to the ocean than when I bought it,” said David Lederman, who has lived on Surfside Drive for 27 years. Pointing to the photographs on the wall, he said, “This picture is accurate. You will get washed away.”
    Alexandra Gladstone, also of Surfside Drive, said that residents in the most expensive zip codes of America are being asked to pay for a town project, and accused the supervisor of wanting to boast to her constituents that she “got 135 people to pay for the beach, and you all got off tax-free.” She is willing to pay her share, she said, along with all of the houses being built on Sagg Pond that also look at the ocean, but don’t have direct frontage.
    “We’re here at your request,” Ms. Throne-Holst said, again explaining that the residents had come to the town and asked to form the erosion control districts. “Now, we are holding a public hearing to ask for your opinion,” she said. “A $25 million borrowing project is not doable” for the town, she said.
    “I don’t think it’s fair at all,” said Otis Pearsall, the director of Bridgehampton Associates, which owns the Bridgehampton Beach Club, and gave the development rights on the 12-acre property to the Peconic Land Trust in 1991. “We have a lot of linear feet. Ours is assessed low because we have given away the right to build ‘McMansions,’ ” he said. “Those who do, but have narrow frontage, are going to benefit from this unfair formula,” he said.
    “I would be interested in hearing from your membership, some of whom are very much in support of it,” Ms. Throne-Holst said.
    John Millard, the president of the Bridgehampton Beach Club, offered an alternative formula, which he said would be the “correct and fair way” to assess what each property owner should pay.
    “We feel that every property owner should pay for the sand placed on their own beach,” Mr. Lignelli, who helped develop the town’s formula, explained in a fax to The Star. “The project is designed and priced on a cubic yard per lineal foot basis, and we thought we achieved the most fairness in our district by allocating the cost on that basis. [. . .] I find it hard to believe that the broader membership of the Bridgehampton Associates does not support paying $10 per month per member to support nourishing the club’s beaches, which are actively used by the members and are regularly enjoyed by all town residents.”
    “What’s lost in this issue, is the money the town will have to spend to defend the parking lot, which will need to be closed if nothing is done,” Mr. Lederman said last week. “The public will use its beach access.