About half of the East Hampton Town shoreline is eroding. Sea level rise will increase the affected area to all of the town’s waterfront over time. These are the key points in a draft policy document released last week intended to guide officials as they contemplate how to prepare.
It is a monumental task, and one that previous town governments have attempted before and failed at. They observed that the town’s haphazard approach to coastal protection has generally had an adverse effect, even though individual properties may have been saved.
The town’s Coastal Assessment Resiliency Plan, or CARP, named without evident irony for an invasive, non-native freshwater fish, is sobering and outlines how current policy has not met the challenge. As soon as 2070, East Hampton will become a series of islands; Amagansett will be separated from Hither Hills by several miles of open ocean. Next will be the higher ground just east of downtown Montauk, and beyond that, parts of present-day East Lake Drive to Montauk Point. Even sooner, stormwater flooding on Montauk Highway and Cranberry Hole Road on Napeague could eliminate essential evacuation routes. A response and other roadway improvements could cost the town as much as $140 million to offset as sea level rises.
Other costs are almost beyond measure. Erosion will eliminate beaches, both for people and wildlife. Water quality may decline as a result of climate change and rising levels of contaminants, harming recreational and commercial harvesters of shellfish and finfish.
With dunes gone, the risk of flood damage will leap upward. Property tax revenue will fall, along with the waterfront houses that will eventually be swallowed up. Freshwater wetlands will become inundated by seawater. Immediate high-risk areas described in the report include downtown Montauk, Ditch Plain and Soundview Drive in Montauk, Lazy Point and Cranberry Hole Road, and Gerard Drive in Springs.
“Managed retreat,” a slow process of moving structures away from danger, is one long-term solution, though it would take hundreds of millions of dollars and extraordinary leadership to accomplish. The authors noted that national competition for money from Washington was only increasing, and at a time when the funding is drying up. The draft calls for a plan based on local funding, warning that the necessary work only gets more expensive.
This is not the first time that East Hampton Town officials have made large-scale policy changes to deal with erosion. At present, the law allows only temporary erosion-control measures in most areas, but this is basically a joke and has been ignored in places including Lazy Point, Cranberry Hole Road, and downtown Montauk.
The town’s Building Department is allowed to issue emergency permits for sandbags for up to six months with the possibility of a three-month extension, but the law has never been enforced. Presumably, too much money is at stake and officials are afraid of becoming embroiled in lawsuits from desperate homeowners. As a result, beaches have become impassable in some places, and legal passage blocked, for example near Lazy Point, where a double-height wall of sandbags has eliminated a deeded access for residents of Bay View Avenue. Repeatedly confronted with this reality, stupefied town elected officials have done nothing to correct the situation.
We have been down this road before. What it will take is intense public pressure to assure that officials have the will to make it happen.