Tractors work on a beach reclamation project at Flying Point Beach in Water Mill on Tuesday.
By Tessa Raebeck
Over 95,000 structures across Long Island were damaged or destroyed by Hurricane Sandy last October, according to federal statistics, however, one East End resource is of special concern to local lawmakers — our beaches.
Efforts in East Hampton and Southampton to prevent coastal erosion started well before Sandy, but both towns have accelerated current practices and adopted new methods in the past year.
“That certainly was the tipping point,” said Southampton Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst of the hurricane. “There’s a lot of interest in this now. People who have paid attention to this or live right [on the shore] — they’ve seen firsthand the erosion that’s happening every year regardless of any storms.”
According to the supervisor, scientific data indicates that East End communities lose about three feet of beach and dunes each year. Beaches are not universally affected; some erode faster than others due to geographical position, the existence of constructed materials such as jetties and other unclassified factors. The sand stretches further than it did prior to Sandy in some locations, while half a mile down the beach there is hardly any sand separating the ocean from the dunes and homes on shore.
In East Hampton Town, Montauk was hit especially hard.
“As a matter of fact, some of the beaches seem to be holding up pretty well everywhere west of Montauk,” said Bill Wilkinson, supervisor for the Town of East Hampton referring to littoral drift, the natural process by which sand on the South Fork moves from Montauk to points west. “When Main Beach in East Hampton Village was named the number one beach in the United States, I said to [Mayor Paul F. Rickenbach, Jr.] the town should get some of that award because it’s Montauk sand.”
In 1960, the United States Army Corps of Engineers authorized a project, the Fire Island to Montauk Point Reformulation Study, to provide for hurricane protection and beach erosion control along the south shore of Long Island, stretching about 83 miles from Fire Island Inlet to Montauk Point.
Following the hurricane, Wilkinson sought to make Montauk a separate piece of that study and made an appeal to Congressman Tim Bishop, among others, “to save downtown Montauk.” Bishop has since worked with the Army Corps of Engineers to separate downtown Montauk on an emergency basis from the rest of the reformulation study.
“In doing so, he’s able to under the [Fire Island to Montauk Point Reformulation Study] federally fund a beach renourishment plan in downtown Montauk,” explained Wilkinson, who said that pursuing such a plan has had majority support from the town board.
The Army Corps is looking at three alternative renourishment programs: A beach renourishment program consisting completely of sand; a program using both sand and sand with buried rock; and a program that uses a rock replacement technology such as geotubes, sediment-filled sleeves of geotextile fabric that are entrenched parallel to the shore.
“The Army Corps is due on or about the first week in November to return to us for discussion at the town board the economic impact of those three alternatives,” said Wilkinson. “I believe the town would have an opportunity if it desired to take a higher priced choice that may be beyond the Army Corps’ recommended financial model. If they do such, then they have to take on the burden themselves — the town — for the difference between the Army Corps recommendation and the chosen product.”
The rest of East Hampton Town could eventually receive renourishment through the Fire Island to Montauk Point study, but “because downtown Montauk was perceived to be so vulnerable at this time they decided to just focus on that particular area,” said Wilkinson.
The area stretches from South Edison Street westward to the beach in front of the Montauk IGA. Once the town makes a selection, the plan to “save downtown Montauk” is expected to start in the first quarter of 2014.
At the end of June, the town deposited 5,000 cubic yards of sand onto Ditch Plains beach, a popular destination for tourists and surfers that lies outside of the downtown area.
“We did that because of the erosion caused by Sandy and the nor’easter subsequent to Sandy,” said Wilkinson, who is hopeful that the town will include such renourishment programs for Ditch Plains as part of its annual capital plan in the future.
Prior to Hurricane Sandy, beachfront homeowners in Southampton petitioned the town board to create special erosion control taxing districts, which were implemented under Throne-Holst’s supervision in 2011. They allow for oceanfront homeowners to fund renourishment projects as a collective through special taxes without putting the burden on other taxpayers.
“The erosion had gotten so bad that their homes and the value of their homes have been really threatened,” said Throne-Holst. “So they recognized the value of doing an entire comprehensive project rather than just home by home.”
The two districts encompass 141 homes in Sagaponack and Bridgehampton. After their creation, the town researched engineering firms and put out bids, ultimately deciding on Coastal Science and Engineering, a company based out of Columbia, South Carolina which has done a number of similar projects.
Currently underway, the $26 million project is scheduled to take 10 years, over which course the taxes will be levied evenly. It will dredge up some two million cubic yards of sand from about a mile offshore and pump it onto the existing beach, resulting in the expected addition of 60 to 70 feet of beach.
“The beaches are going to both look and feel dramatically different and function the way Westhampton Dunes has, which is a very similar project to protect the properties from storms and erosion going forward,” said the supervisor, referring to a $25 million renourishment project completed in Westhampton during the 1990’s that she considers immensely successful.
Although the taxing districts are separated by hamlet, the project is contiguous. The 141 homeowners are split almost evenly between Sagaponack and Bridgehampton, but the criteria for tax levy varies by district. Bridgehampton’s erosion control district taxes are levied based solely on linear footage; how much of your property spans the beach determines what portion you pay. In Sagaponack, the rate is determined by a combination of linear footage and assessed value, due to extremely large compounds like Ira Rennert’s 60,000 square-foot mansion that have high values but relatively little beachfront property.
A small portion of the project covers public beach access areas and pavilions. Renourishment of those sections will be funded by the town through park reserve and subdivision funds, allowing the town to cover its portion of the costs without raising taxes.
Both Wilkinson and Throne-Holst are hopeful that the presence of construction trucks on the beaches this winter will ensure the enjoyment of beachgoers this summer and for years to come.