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Goats in Montauk? Hold Your Horses

Thu, 08/10/2023 - 09:54
“I can’t afford to not have the summer season go well because people know there are goats across the street,” said the owner of an Old Montauk Highway motel.
Durell Godfrey

A plan to employ goats to remove invasive species in the Arthur Benson Preserve on Old Montauk Highway that Concerned Citizens of Montauk pitched to the East Hampton Town Board last month may sound quaint, but the board lightly tapped the brakes on the proposal on Tuesday when two residents pushed back on the idea, citing a judge’s 1994 ruling that prohibits fencing or any other structures on the roughly 40 acres south of the roadway and overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. 

Representatives from C.C.O.M., which would oversee and manage the project, presented a proposal to the board last month describing an effort to restore the preserve, which the town acquired in 1999, to its condition of a century and more ago. The narrow strip of land includes several trails by which the public can access the beach. There is a high proportion of invasive species there that could destroy biodiversity and species richness and disrupt ecosystems, the board was told last month. The project would include the planting of native species and restoration work, followed by ongoing maintenance. 

Aerial drone photographs taken in 2021 identified three distinct vegetation zones, with a steep, eight-acre middle zone predominantly comprising vines. About half of that would be fenced, where two to three goats per acre, or a total of 14 to 21, would be released in four enclosures, the board was told. In addition to fencing, a temporary shelter would be erected in each enclosure, as goats do not like rain. 

The board did vote on Tuesday to pass a resolution in support of the restoration project and announced a plan for a public hearing next month. C.C.O.M. plans to apply to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation for grant money for the project, with a deadline of tomorrow. But two Montauk residents implored the board to reconsider, both referring to the 1990s lawsuit decided in favor of plaintiffs, the Breakers Motel et al., and against the defendants Nicola Biase and Sunbeach Montauk Two. The plaintiffs successfully argued that their deeds grant an easement over the latter’s property. Mr. Biase had bought the land in 1982 and planned to develop it, and in 1984 erected fencing blocking access to the property, precipitating the lawsuit. 

Judge William Underwood ruled in Suffolk County Supreme Court that a restrictive covenant runs with the property, that the plaintiffs and the public have access rights, and that the defendants must remove the fencing and “are without the right to erect fences, berms or other structures” and are “forever barred from making claim to erect such structures.” 

The town “cannot allow C.C.O.M. or its consultants or contractors to install barns or fences or any other structures and fences to contain the goats,” Laura Michaels of Montauk told the board, “because it will directly violate Judge Underwood’s ruling.” She wondered aloud why the Montauk Citizens Advisory Committee was not informed of the plan, “and why wasn’t there a presentation from C.C.O.M.” to the committee? The reserve is in “the well-established, stable dune system with invasive plants that create a mixture of very short and long stable root systems. . . . There has been little to no erosion on these dunes for the last 24 years that I have been traversing the access paths.” At the least, she said, Montauk residents “should have had the courtesy of a public hearing as it affects not only the landowners who live across the street from the reserve, but all of Montauk.” There are far more significant water quality improvement and dune restoration projects needed in the hamlet, she said. 

Jeanne Nielsen, who heads the town’s assessor’s office but was speaking on her own behalf, reiterated that the 1994 ruling stipulated that no hard structures of any kind, permanent or not, are allowed on the Benson Preserve. “The concern is coming in and trying to fix something there that isn’t broken,” said Ms. Nielsen, whose family was among the plaintiffs in the 1990s lawsuit. She runs the Twin Pond Motel on the Old Highway, she told the board, “and I can’t afford to not have the summer season go well because people know there are goats across the street. What happens when the fireworks go off on July 4 and the goats are on the property? There’s just too many concerns.” She asked that the resolution be tabled “until such a time when the 50 or so neighbors,” most of whom she said don’t know about the plan, “are brought into the conversation. . . .” 

Public access to the beach would be maintained if the project were to proceed, Councilman David Lys said, and “any type of potential use of goats would be in a temporary fashion.” 

Rusty Schmidt, a landscape ecologist with the Nelson, Pope, and Voorhis firm, said via video conference that, while invasive species in much of the preserve could be removed mechanically, the area in question comprises steep slopes. Given the topography, “we can’t have machines on that slope, it’s impractical and dangerous for the operators.” That, he said, means that “on some of these areas we would have to use humans on foot to manage and do the work by hand. . . . The vines are not only multiflora rose and green briar that are trying to grab you and poke you, but then you also have poison ivy mixed in.” 

Moreover, he said that methodology would disturb the soil, “so it would be more complicated with the erosion control measures that would need to be in place.” It would also “increase the cost by about three times. . . . So the goats are a better solution to get the bulk of the material pulled out of the way, and would be a lot better for the environment in regard to the erosion and the steep slopes.” 

Board members agreed to pass the resolution in support of the restoration so that C.C.O.M. could apply for grant money and to schedule a public hearing for the second week in September. “Obviously, this is in the very early stages,” Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc said. 

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