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Leaving Montauk Oceanfront at Risk

Wed, 05/08/2019 - 15:57

About every expert on coastal erosion and sea level rise will tell you that the only solution for at-risk areas is to retreat. But right now, the only significant retreat appears to be by the East Hampton Town Board, which collapsed notably amid ill-informed pressure from some Montauk residents and resort owners who objected to a part of a long-range planning study.

After years of inaction, “Waiting for Godot”-grade lethargy while hoping the United States Army Corps was going to swoop in and save the day, the town commissioned a look at downtown Montauk, now in final draft. Which is supposed to include a visionary goal to deal with the threatened shore. Given the corps’ record, a positive outcome is far from assured. 

In the town plan many of the hotels and other businesses in the low-lying area would be removed and rebuilt over a 50-year time frame, if their owners chose to, on higher ground. This would bring many of the oceanfront row into compliance with modern Federal Emergency Management Agency safety rules, as well as protecting the rest of the commercial center through a restoration effort to rebuild a protective dune. Those property owners who decided not to rebuild might be eligible for highly valuable development credits, providing an exit strategy or retirement cushion for some.

Under current law, the future of the Montauk oceanfront does not look great. Technically, structural erosion barriers are banned, and the sandbag seawall completed by an Army Corps contractor in 2015 is supposed to be temporary while the corps supposedly works out a permanent solution. Meanwhile, the town and Suffolk County have already spent millions trying to keep the bags covered with sand. And, like Sisyphus condemned to an eternity rolling a boulder up a mountain, there is no tangible promise of a change. 

The Army Corps Fire Island to Montauk Point plan was commissioned by Congress in 1960; it is still not complete. Even if and when it is, expect Montauk to be of modest priority given its low-lying, extraordinary vulnerability to sea level rise and storm surges — and lower real estate value compared to places such as Napeague and East Hampton Village. Remember, Montauk has not experienced a truly powerful storm since 1938, and the last time a surge even came within a quarter of that intensity was during Hurricane Carol in 1954. So-called Superstorm Sandy was significant, but nowhere near these in intensity. Sea level, the floor on which storms charge in, has been rising all along, which means that even modest surges can now result in greater damage.  

Some hope can be seen in a town process that has been quietly working on policy recommendations. Called CARP, for coastal assessment resiliency plan, a group of citizens and experts is seeking answers as to what can be done. The sobering initial resiliency plan draft can be seen on the town’s website.

The key in the CARP roadmap is the town’s Comprehensive Plan, into which the controversial Montauk study would be included when it is adopted officially. Once these ideas are incorporated into the document, any options for downtown Montauk or other at-risk areas will begin to take shape — if the town board is brave enough.

We hope the recent step back is just a bump in the road on the path to a long-term, sustainable approach to living by the sea. The much-hyped economic contribution of downtown Montauk goes away if and when it is wiped out by a really bad storm. Gradually shifting businesses to a safe location before that happens simply makes sense over the long haul.

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