The East Hampton Town supervisor shared a truth this week when he explained that keeping sand on the denuded downtown Montauk ocean beach was not something that the town and Suffolk County could afford to do for the long term. His observation came after the United States Army Corps of Engineers announced that its plan for Montauk would not go into effect until 2023. You could have seen this coming.
By 2015, the perennially threatened row of hotels and private property on the Montauk oceanfront were nearly undermined after a series of storms. The sense in Town Hall seemed to be that these should be protected at any cost, and officials lobbied the Army Corps for help. In time, the Corps approved a one-time $8.4 million effort to bolster what remained of the dunes with massive sandbags.
The sandbags would be covered with trucked-in sand at federal expense for two years — after that it would be the town and county’s financial obligation until Congress approved a much larger erosion mitigation plan that would cover the beaches from Fire Island to Montauk. Since 2018, the town and county have paid to have sand brought in, about $1 million each time with the understanding that the expenditure would be temporary. When Congress finally okayed the Fire Island to Montauk Point Reformulation Study, known as FIMP, money was set aside for the downtown beach work. It would include replenishment from an offshore source for 50 years. East Hampton officials were led to believe that Montauk would be at the top of the list.
Never assume anything when Washington is involved might be among the lessons in this. When the Fire Island to Montauk Plan was commissioned in 1960 (yes, you read that right), it was expected to be written and funded within a space of years. Presidents came and went, the Civil Rights Act became law, men landed on the moon, wars were fought, the iPhone was invented, and still nothing happened. In the intervening years, the entire premise of the project grew more obviously flawed, even as the price ballooned to $1.5 billion. When it was first envisioned, it was intended to control erosion and provide protection from hurricanes. Now, in sharp contrast to this stand-and-fight philosophy, the scientific and environmental consensus is that moving structures back from the beaches is the only effective long-term answer.
In 1960, erosion was more gradual and associated in most people’s minds with being caused by unusually powerful storms. Since then, it has become clear the pace of beach loss is increasing, largely the result of sea level rise. At the same time, the warming ocean is fueling stronger and more frequent hurricanes. Sixty years ago it might have seemed sensible to armor the shoreline; today that approach is outdated.
Regrettably, when the Town of East Hampton put forward its own 50-year vision to gradually shift downtown Montauk’s most vulnerable private properties to safer ground, misguided public outrage followed, and the plan was abandoned. Now, the town and county and, eventually, U.S. taxpayers must cover the cost of bad policy. The Fire Island to Montauk Plan was never going to be the best solution, but in waiting for it for so long, the town has wasted multiple opportunities to do the right thing and accept an inevitable retreat from the edge of the ocean.