There has really never been any question about the right thing to do where the Montauk downtown ocean beach is concerned. For decades, it has been obvious that an orderly relocation of at-risk properties would be far better than waiting for a major hurricane strike that could level more than a dozen resort properties, driving their debris inland, and causing hundreds of millions of avoidable damage. Or, in a slower-moving catastrophe, winter storms would continue undermining the row of hotels and a few residences, forcing taxpayers to cover the public cost of continually piling sand to protect private interests — an unsustainable proposition in the long run.
Time and again, town officials have been told what they should do, and time and again they have taken the easy path of doing nothing. But worse, when presented with a 50-year plan for phased backing away from the shore, the East Hampton Town Board panicked and dropped the most-sensible and far-reaching aspects from the final draft. Doing nothing is not courage, far from it.
This head-in-the-sand approach to managing inevitable coastal erosion is not new, nor is it limited to East Hampton. Though decades ago, town officials adopted seemingly tough laws designed to phase out houses and businesses on narrowing shorelines, in practice these were never applied or found to be unworkable. When faced with waterfront-property owners pleading for help or represented by deft legal counsel, zoning boards have caved almost as quickly as the dunes were eaten away. For example, rules against building or expanding anything beyond a certain distance from the dune crest are routinely bent with the general approval of town and village authorities. Note, too, that the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation saw trouble ahead and simply quit its role in coastal erosion policy not all that long ago.
Another example is that “hard” structures, such as rocks or sandbags, are supposed to be used temporarily in case of emergencies but linger for years, causing permanent damage to downdrift properties. Again, the problems have been understood for years; the courage to actually do something about them has been what’s missing — and so beachgoers, taxpayers, and wildlife all suffer to differing extents. People may wonder what happened to the once-booming scallop harvest but ignore the effects of removing much of the living foreshore on which shellfish and a host of other marine life depended. You cannot ring an estuary with rock or toxic-laden wooden seawalls and expect things to carry on as they once were. But in a region where second homes and resort real estate is king, sacrifices have to be made, right?
This is where leadership or a lack thereof comes in. Elected officials are supposed to be chosen for their willingness to come up with answers to the thorniest dilemmas. But voters, too, share the blame for not demanding more from their candidates. Politicians come and go, what does not are the beaches. Downtown Montauk, perched now at the brink of disaster, should have made that clear.