Southampton Town Trustees Explores the Balance of Beach Protection & Public Access

Posted on 24 April 2013

By Tessa Raebeck

A home sold in the 1960s due to the owner’s belief in its inevitable demise at the hands of Mother Nature is still standing today — but the expansive beaches that once surrounded it have disappeared entirely.

The Southampton home, which belonged to the family of lifetime resident and Southampton Town Trustee Fred Havemeyer, now juts out to the sea on a shaky promontory. Barricades built by neighbors to protect their own homes have preserved the structure, while the beaches that once made it a desirable home have been destroyed.

In the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy last October, year round residents and local officials are questioning the legality — as well as the ethics — of sacrificing public beaches in order to preserve private properties. At the Bridgehampton Citizens Advisory Committee (CAC) meeting Monday night, Havemeyer addressed attendants on the duty of the Southampton Town Trustees to protect the community beaches. He stressed the importance of beach preservation for both recreational and economic reasons, as well as the ongoing threat to public beaches posed by bulkheads or man-made barricades.

“It’s been going on for centuries, it’s not a new thing,” Havemeyer said of coastal erosion.

The trustees, who are responsible for safeguarding the marine community and protecting public access rights, maintain that construction of such bulkheads severely hastens the erosion process. Oceanfront homes, belonging predominantly to wealthy, seasonal residents, are temporarily preserved while local beaches are obliterated.

Havemeyer put it simply, “You put in bulkheads, you lose beaches.”

“I think it is important to remember that there is a population on the East End that lives and votes here year round,” CAC member and former chairman Fred Cammann wrote in a letter to the committee. “We respect the power of storms and we know not to challenge the forces of nature with artificial Band-Aids because our experience has shown this to be folly. Multiple generations know that one may live with, but never try to control, our ever changing environment.”

Following the coastal destruction from Superstorm Sandy, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) issued a permit allowing homeowners to restore sections of existing bulkheads and hard structures on the beach which were damaged to a height no greater than 18 inches above the original structure.

The trustees, along with members of the CAC, claim that many homeowners violated the spirit of the permit by rebuilding the structures altogether rather than restoring the damaged areas as authorized. Allegedly, many homeowners used unstable wooden fences in the dunes, which lie above the buried bulkheads, as a benchmark for reconstruction rather than the bulkheads themselves.

The resulting bulkheads are therefore higher and more extensive than the DEC regulations permit. One example in Bridgehampton, according to CAC vice chair Jeffrey Mansfield, was a wooden bulkhead that extended one foot above the sand being removed and replaced by a steel bulkhead protruding five feet above sand level.

Many states with coastal communities, including Washington, Texas and the Carolinas, have enacted laws to limit or prohibit the construction of bulkheads due to perceived negative environmental effects. Havemeyer, who has been monitoring the bays and beaches of Southampton daily for the past 11 years, claims that in order to combat erosion resulting from bulkheads, massive beach replenishment projects are necessary.

He warned the CAC, “We are harnessing everybody into a situation that once this is put in, we will have to replenish [the beaches] forever.”

The trustee maintains that these projects could be required as often as biannually, at an immense and ever increasing cost to taxpayers.

Opponents of individual barricades reference an even more drastic cost to local residents; the loss of public beaches which would command the loss of the central component of the East End’s vibrant tourism industry and thus severely damage the area’s economic vitality.

“We’re really defining a moment where we could lose the most important aspect that we have, which is the Atlantic beaches,” said Havemeyer.

The Southampton Town Trustees, with the support of the Bridgehampton CAC, believe these homeowners will inevitably discover that, unlike oceanfront homes and steel barricades, Mother Nature cannot be bought. They are hopeful that legal regulations will aid in their campaign to preserve public beaches, but worry that many oceanfront homeowners have such substantial wealth that they consider themselves to be above the law.

“During the next 20, 30 years while we’re waiting for Mother Nature to show the hedge funds who’s boss, we — the year round residents — will be suffering,” Mansfield said in Monday’s meeting.

Citing the area around an existing bulkhead from the early 1980s, he said, “No matter if you’re a beachcomber, a dog walker, a fisherman, or a surfer, you can’t get to the beach.”

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