East Hampton Town officials are on track to complete a document intended to guide the town on policy to face sea level rise and other effects of a warming climate. However, there is a sense that we have seen this before. The proof will be in the implementation of the Coastal Assessment Resiliency Plan, or CARP, since previous efforts along the shoreline have been mostly ignored.
The current members of the East Hampton Town Board may not remember when a long-delayed aspect of the town’s state-approved Local Waterfront Revitalization Plan dealing with beaches and erosion was finally completed nearly two decades ago. Like the Coastal Assessment Resiliency Plan, the recommendations were greeted with optimism. Unfortunately, though many of them eventually were adopted into the town code, they proved impractical. And, in some cases, it came down to a lack of political will for enforcement.
For example, temporary seawalls hastily placed to protect individual houses have become permanent along bay beaches in Amagansett, depriving the public of its long-cherished right to the town’s shore. In downtown Montauk, keeping a multimillion-dollar buried seawall, illegal from the start, covered with sand continues to cost taxpayers millions. Meanwhile, officials continue to hand out building permits in the danger zone. It is all very well to say that it will be different this time, but so far, the record could be rated as poor.
Unlike earlier efforts, the current plan would set the town up for state and federal aid. However, experience has shown that waiting for help from outside the town is mostly futile. This is in large part due to the money going to tackle higher-priority coastal risks, often in places with higher populations than East Hampton. As challenges from climate change rise and the costs soar, there will likely, too, be political resistance to paying for projects in the ultrawealthy “Hamptons.”
Already, the federally backed flood insurance program has had to be cut back amid Americans’ distaste for protecting the vacation houses of the rich.
To have any hope of success, East Hampton Town shoreline policy must be based on the expectation that no money will be coming to the rescue from outside. Steps, such as banning improvements and new construction in risk-prone locations, could be taken locally and added to the town’s zoning code. Houses that are already on the beach — or partially over water — as at Napeague and Gerard Drive in Springs, could be condemned. Officials might also think as a start about enforcing the regulations already in place. But simply making new laws, then waiting for Washington to write the check, would only add to a long line of avoidable mistakes.