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

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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.”

Rogers House Work Nearly Half Complete

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By Kathryn G. Menu

The restoration of the Nathaniel Rogers House, the dilapidated former homestead that was built in Bridgehampton 187 years ago, is about halfway through the first phase focused on repairs to the foundation, new framing and a new roof.

The Bridgehampton Citizens Advisory Committee on Monday received an update on the work from Bridgehampton Historical Society Director Dr. John Eilertsen. Eilertsen promised that by mid-summer the graying exterior of the building, which is at the corner of Montauk Highway and Ocean Road, would be painted its original white color, vastly improving the look of the building, which sits at the eastern gateway to downtown Bridgehampton.

As Dr. Eilertsen explained to the CAC, the restoration of the building will attempt to preserve both the Greek-style architecture Nathaniel Rogers wrapped around the original 1824 house when he remodeled the residence around 1840, as well as interior renovations completed by the Hedges and Hopping families for their Hampton House hotel following their purchase of the property in 1894.

“The goal is to show the evolution of the building,” said Dr. Eilertsen.

The historical society and the Town of Southampton have jointly pursued the restoration of the home, with the town purchasing the seven-acre parcel of land with money from the Community Preservation Fund in 2003. The historical society bought the house itself, but never took ownership of the residence, instead conveying the home to the town with an agreement that the historical society would remain stewards of the property.

Getting the restoration off the ground, according to Dr. Eilertsen, has taken some time since all town projects must go through a bidding process and “a lot of red tape.” However, the project has had ample support from the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation & Historic Preservation, which has given the town two grants to help fund the restoration and has encouraged the town to apply for a third grant as they near the end of phase one construction and begin to raise monies for phase two.

Dr. Eilertsen added that the red tape associated with a municipal project that has received grant funding will ultimately protect the Nathaniel Rogers House with strict standards that require the building to be restored to what it was in 1890 and to ensure it will never be converted into a privately owned business.

Dr. Eilertsen said the first phase of the restoration, which is being constructed for just under $2 million, is focused on making the structure sound through framing improvements on the interior and with a new roof, along with painting on the façade and addressing issues with the foundation and sub-structure.

Dr. Eilertsen said if the historical society can raise enough money before the first phase of construction is completed in September, they would also like to restore the columns on the front of the Nathaniel Rogers House. Otherwise that project will be folded into the second phase of construction.

That bidding process, said Dr. Eilertsen, will likely begin sometime next year. In total, Dr. Eilertsen estimated that the entire restoration project will cost between $5.5 and $6 million, and that right now an estimated $3.5 million in funding still needs to be obtained, whether through grants or private donors.

Once completed, the Nathaniel Rogers House will be open to the public, with the historical society maintaining offices and a climate controlled archival space within the structure.

Bridgehampton CAC Chairman Fred Cammann noted that the town also plans on eventually making the entire seven-acre parcel a public park, which he envisions as the perfect eastern gateway to downtown Bridgehampton.

Dr. Eilertsen said over time, the historical society would like to explore highlighting the historical significance of some of the outbuildings on the property, including a stable and chicken coop and small house on the east of the property, which are now covered by vegetation but are believed to have been the home of an African-American caretaker of the Nathaniel Rogers House.

“We wouldn’t be able to restore it, but we would like to at least replicate it,” said Dr. Eilertsen.