East Hampton Town officials are again revising the rules for sandbag seawalls. Under town law, property-protecting sandbags are allowed only temporarily, for up to nine months, while other solutions are found. In practice, once the bags go in, they are there for good, as in a town-co-sponsored shoring up of the downtown Montauk hotels or along Gardiner’s Bay in Amagansett.
In concept, even fast-eroding beaches are supposed to be preserved for public use; in practice, the sandbags — and metal, stone, or timber revetments before them — rob traditional access. A rewritten section of town code would try to force property owners to remove the supposedly temporary sandbags by requiring a monetary bond up front and giving officials the right to remove the bags themselves if a property owner refused to comply.
Another new rule would limit the sandbags’ extent to protect just an upland structure, not run from corner to corner of a piece of waterfront land itself. For example, at Mulford Lane near Lazy Point, two adjacent landowners have been allowed to join their seawalls, cutting off a deeded neighborhood path to the beach. Aside from the rapid beach loss and adjacent scouring caused by seawalls, there is another very good reason to ban the bags — plastic pollution.
The misleadingly termed bags are frequently described as geotextiles, a catch-all for fabrics chiefly made from synthetic polyester or polypropylene fibers. These materials can degrade in the marine environment into microplastics, which can make their way up the food web from fish and shellfish to humans. According to current research, the volume of plastic ending up on the surface of the oceans is increasing at about 4 percent each year. One way that town officials might choose to respond to the obvious pollution issue is to require that the sandbags be made only of natural, rapidly biodegradable materials, such as jute or coir from coconut husks. These would not last long enough to become a permanent issue, thereby solving several problems at once.
Tightening the sandbag rules is long overdue; whether town officials will have the guts to enforce the changes in the face of real estate pressure will be the next challenge. Board members must ask also themselves if harmful plastics should be allowed on the beaches at all.