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Buying Time by the Millions

Wed, 01/17/2024 - 17:03


In a matter of weeks, the downtown Montauk oceanfront will be saved from falling into the Atlantic. This should not be a cause for celebration. All the work and expense that the United States Army Corps of Engineers will pour into the project is nothing more than buying time.

For decades, elected officials have been told that the few hotels, condominiums, and private houses on the Montauk oceanfront were doomed; for just as long they have been unwilling to confront the inevitable. An initial $11.5 million federal project for Montauk that is now beginning should be interpreted as an admission of defeat, not success. The corps might as well just pile American taxpayers’ cash on the beach and cut out the middlemen.

In East Hampton, yet another study is underway, but if history is any guide, its recommendations will be mostly ignored, the same way the town’s earlier work on coastal erosion has not led to adequate policy responses. There is nothing to suggest that the town board will act on its own advice this time around. An obvious conclusion is that the Army Corps work in Montauk — and subsequent beach-building every four years until 2033 — will take the pressure off the town to act, foisting the problem off on another generation to solve.

As the Army Corps sees it, downtown Montauk was already at the end of the line. The corps’s way of looking at shoreline risk is in a series of descending steps, the last of which includes moving sand around. In order of preference, the corps’s first choice is improving the way communities deal with land through tougher building codes backed up by strict zoning regulations. Farther down the list it calls for using the lever of expensive, difficult-to-get federal flood insurance to dissuade construction in the danger zones. Lower still is the option of relocating or buying out homeowners and businesses. The last lines of defense are projects the Army Corps defines as “structural,” that is, building sea walls, piling boulders, and rebuilding a temporary beach. Put simply, when all else fails, sand.

Beyond the political will, the problem is who pays. It is easy for the corps to say structures should be removed from the beach zone when it is not footing the bill. That cost is the locality’s alone, not United States taxpayers’. The corps has ideas, of course. In the documentation for the Montauk work, it describes a scenario in which owners could sell out to the town or another entity then pay rent on the properties for 25 years if they wanted to stay on.

A buy-and-lease-back program would allow homeowners and businesses time to make other plans so that as the end of the 30-year sand replenishment program approaches, the town and county are not in the same place. In addition, the corps suggests strengthened local post-storm redevelopment strategies that could recognize storm risks and provide direction for the rebuilding of communities in a “more sustainable manner.” By that, it means retreat: eliminating shoreline structures and nurturing new protective dunes.

The Montauk work beginning this week is part of the Fire Island to Montauk Point Reformulation Study, for which Congress set aside $1.7 billion to protect roughly 4,400 structures. The money came amid a spasm of projects after Superstorm Sandy blasted the Northeast in 2012, but there is no assurance that Washington, D.C., will be that generous again.

To underscore how past policies have been impossible to implement, consider that the biggest violator is East Hampton Town itself -- on the same Montauk Beach. The sandbag seawall now exposed after a prolonged series of winter storms should have been removed within nine months of its completion in 2015, under town law. It was not because there seemed no good alternative at the time, or at least none worth the political risk to the then-town board majority. There simply wasn't the will to let the hotels alll fall into the ocean.

Throughout, the East End towns and villages have confronted the danger not as a shared responsibility but with an attitude of “Let’s wait for the Army Corps,” instead of being brave enough to take the preceding steps. It would be costly leaving it up to the towns and villages to help by buying out certain property owners to reduce the number of structures in high-risk areas, even if that seems the best option for the long haul. Now is the time to prepare for what is to come.

Sand represents a failure of policy, not a success. And it will not last.


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