By Kathryn G. Menu
Oceanfront property owners in Sagaponack, Bridgehampton and Water Mill approved a referendum on Saturday night that will allow homeowners and the Town of Southampton to spend $24 million to replenish eroded beachfront. A beachfront only made worse by Hurricane Sandy’s impact this October.
According to Southampton Town Clerk Sundy Schermeyer, Town Attorney Tiffany Scarlato and Deputy Town Attorney Kathleen Murray between two erosion control districts in Bridgehampton and Sagaponack 75 ballots were cast in favor of the project and 49 against.
Only residents within the two erosion control districts were allowed to vote in the referendum.
According to Jennifer Garvey, with Southampton Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst’s office, 202 homeowners were eligible to cast votes in the referendum which will allow voters to pay for the beach renourishment through special taxing districts. One hundred and twenty four residents turned out to cast ballots in the referendum vote Saturday.
The project will encompass six miles of contiguous shoreline, including 141 properties, five of which are beaches owned by Southampton Town. The town will foot $1.5 million of the project to cover the cost of renourishment on its beaches.
“Today’s referendum marks the culmination of two and a half years of collaboration with our ocean front property owners — a group of constituents who first approached the town with an interest in forming a special taxing district in order to jointly pursue more efficient and cost-effective measures for protecting their properties,” said Throne-Holst.
The Southampton Town Board will serve as commissioners of both erosion control districts and will have to issue a $24 million bond to finance the project, which will be repaid by homeowners and the town over a 10-year period.
According to the town, properties within the two districts have an assessed value of $1.8 billion.
The project will entail dredging 2.5 million tons of sand from two areas one-mile offshore and replenishing the beach with that sand. It is expected to start in late spring or early summer, and will take about two months to complete.
“As individual property owners, many of us have been investing tens of thousands of dollars on an annual basis to rebuild our dunes and protect our homes from the impacts of erosion,” said Alan Stillman, a long-time Sagaponack property owner and member of the Sagaponack Beach Erosion Control District Advisory Board. “A systematic solution offers much greater protection and value. That is what we proposed — and have now approved.”
“From the start, we approached this undertaking like a business,” said Jeff Lignelli, a Bridgehampton property owner. “We researched numerous erosion protection measures and costs, and ultimately chose an award-winning coastal expert to design a renourishment project — the option we felt was the best fit for the area because it matches the look and feel of the existing beach, which was critically important to us. When the project is finished, the beaches will basically look like they did 30 years ago — much wider.”
The South Carolina-based firm of Coastal Science and Engineering led by Dr. Tim Kana designed the project.
First Coastal Corporation of Westhampton is the local permitting partner.
“Votes like this are always nerve wracking, but we are just thrilled the residents felt it was important enough to spend their own money on this,” said Aram Terchunian, with First Coastal Corporation, on Tuesday. “This is historic, particularly in the wake of what happened during Hurricane Sandy.”
Terchunian and Garvey said that now the project will move into the permitting phase, which was already pursued while awaiting the results of Saturday’s referendum.
Terchunian said both the New York State Office of Coastal Management and the New York State Office of General Services have already signed off on the project. It still needs approved from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and the Army Corp of Engineers.
While Terchunian praised homeowners for being willing to take on such a project, he added he believes the state and federal government will need to take a bigger role in beach renourishment in the future.
“These are levels of government getting huge benefits in the form of sales and incomes taxes in the regional and national economy tied to our beaches,” he said. “Beaches produce so much income on so many different levels we need to see they are protected.”
Whether or not this project will benefit from Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) funding for those impacted by Hurricane Sandy remains unclear. Beaches in both Bridgehampton and Sagaponack, having already contended with significant beach erosion, were hammered by the fall storm, whole stretches of beach literally washed away.
“We are pursuing that and the town is pursuing that very aggressively,” said Terchunian.
In fact, after Hurricane Sandy, the town board fast tracked this proposal after seeing the coastline and structural damage caused in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. The board voted unanimously to approve the proposal and a referendum on the project on November 27.
“I think this plan would have won the support it needed even before Superstorm Sandy, but what was initially a more proactive project became urgently needed following the storm,” said Throne-Holst. “Fortunately, these property owners were already well into the process of securing the needed support and permissions for their proposal, so it’s likely they’ll have a wide, protective beach within the year.”
“The beaches are a crucial part of our local economy and way of life, and the properties within these BECDs [Beach Erosion Control District] also comprise a major portion of our tax base. I think this is a remarkable public/private partnership that will greatly benefit both the property owners and all of our town residents, and I’m proud to have been a part of making it happen,” she said.