By Tessa Raebeck; Photography by Hannah Thomas
Two weeks ago, the largest hurricane in living memory roared through New York the New York region, wiping out coastal dune systems on this end of Long Island and entire neighborhoods on the other.
As a result, Southampton town officials held a special work session last Thursday to revisit a proposed beach re-nourishment project in the Bridgehampton and Sagaponack erosion control districts.
The districts were authorized by the town board back in 2010 as part of a comprehensive plan to combat beach erosion on the south shore. The project aims to use beach nourishment to preserve a six-mile stretch of beachfront property which includes about 190 homes and five public properties.
But protection doesn’t come cheap. The proposed restoration is expected to cost several million dollars (much of it paid by homeowners themselves through creation of a new tax) and it has been the subject of five public hearings over the past two years. Discussions stalled after several homeowners requested exemption from the proposed project, citing their opposition to paying the special taxes that would have resulted with approval of this plan.
According to Jennifer Garvey, an aide to Southampton Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst, the town is working with State Assemblyman Fred Thiele on legislation to provide opposing property owners with tax relief. Garvey said the town board is prepared to move forward with the project, but has been waiting until the legislation passed — expected to be January 2014 at the earliest — to hold the vote on it.
But in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, significant erosion was reported by homeowners, so the town is attempting to speed up the restoration process.
“These homeowners have spent substantial money doing these temporary fixes [following the storm],” Supervisor Throne-Holst explained, “and for that reason, they are all the more eager to see us move forward with the proposed project, which is a long-term project to shore up our beaches.”
On Thursday, coastal erosion scientist Dr. Timothy Kana, founder and president of Coastal Science & Engineering in Columbia, S.C., addressed the effects of Hurricane Sandy on his comprehensive, 10 year plan for restoring and preserving the districts. The proposed project would add 2,127,500 cubic yards of sand to the shoreline.
Kana’s initial report outlined three restorative scenarios — low, middle, and upper — to determine how much sand would need to be placed on the beach. The Sagaponack Beach Erosion Control District elected the upper-level scenario, which requires the most sand and thus the highest expense.
Initially, the Bridgehampton Beach Erosion Control District chose the mid-level scenario. Following the effects of Hurricane Sandy, however, Bridgehampton has elected to increase the amount of sand to an upper-level scenario, in turn increasing the project’s projected total cost of $24 million by about $1.3 million.
Members of the town board met with Kana and other environmental specialists to discuss the storm’s impact on the original plans and proposed increasing the project’s maximum tax line.
“We now have a firsthand look at what happens and can happen after a storm like this,” Throne-Holst told the audience.
She also emphasized the economic importance of beaches as a foundation of the town’s tax base.
“[The homeowners] have asked us to move this forward,” she said, “I personally think we need to move it forward, too.”
Southampton Town Chief Environmental Analyst Marty Shea outlined the effects of Hurricane Sandy on the coastal districts. Shea called the damage very severe, citing the narrow width of the beach in many areas. According to Shea, homeowners will find it difficult to reconstruct protective dune lines under the present conditions.
“The best protection in this situation is to have a wide beach,” Shea told the board Thursday, “and that’s what the intent of the Erosion Control District Beach Re-nourishment plan is — to extend the width of that beach seaward.”
Shea maintains that preserving the dune system is impossible without a wide beach to sustain it.
He also discussed individual landowners’ efforts to build temporary storm relief and the financial and structural benefits of a joint restoration effort. To protect their homes from the recent storms, many residents have constructed temporary sand berms. Shea attests that, without unity in undertaking these projects, the location of the dune lines are inconsistent.
He admitted the berms provide temporary relief, but insists they have neither the quantity nor quality of sand required for substantial re-nourishment. Homeowners are willing to stabilize their properties at their own expense in the short term, he claimed, but ultimately hope to see a collective, long-term plan in place.
When asked by the board how the impact of Hurricane Sandy would have differed had the re-nourishment project already been in place, Shea said, “Sandy has accelerated our agenda.”
He attributed damage to the width of the beach, stating, “Everywhere that had a narrow beach, there is no dune at all and the beach itself is compromised.”
Shea relayed his involvement in a similar nourishment project in Westhampton Dunes 20 years ago. Prior to implementation, storm damage consisted of two breaches through the barrier island and 120 damaged houses.
Following Hurricane Sandy, the district incurred “absolutely no structural damage to any home [and] absolutely no loss to the dune itself.”
Shea asked the board to compare this outcome with the damage seen in Bridgehampton and Sagaponack.
Dr. Kana further underlined the necessity of a long-term nourishment plan. Kana has been involved in over 30 beach restoration projects, primarily along the eastern seaboard. His plan for the erosion control districts center around maintaining what he calls a “literal budget” of sand. Kana asserts that sustaining a level of sand on the beach continuously fortifies the dunes, which serve as the best protection against washovers and other storm damage.
He pointed to North Carolina’s Outer Banks region, an area he alleges slowed beach erosion substantially in the 1930s through similar measures to push up the dunes.
Ultimately, the proposed project aims to lessen the annual costs of protection for beachfront homeowners. According to Garvey, if the proposed restoration plan is enacted, “the cost over many years will be less than the cost of putting emergency berms in over and over. [Coastal residents are] paying tens of thousands of dollars for emergency protections, so you can understand why they are very anxious at this point.”
Town officials view the measure as a long-term investment for the safety of personal homes and the recreational enjoyment of public beaches. In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, proponents have asked the town to move forward with the proposed project.
A public hearing on the proposed increase to the districts’ tax lines will take place on Tuesday, November 27 at 6 p.m.