Beware of Erosion on the East End

Recent hurricane seasons have drastically increased the erosion of many Hamptons beaches. This has caused for some unusual sunset walks along the shore, but more importantly (for some) it has changed the boundary of many beachfront properties. Since this is the Hamptons, many of these properties happen to be some of the most expensive in the entire world, and many of their owners are none-too-happy about the fact that the size of their plot, and thereby its value, is decreasing along with the beach.

Earlier this year, the East Hampton Town Trustees lost a lawsuit over a piece of Georgica Beach that considered a unique boundary (grass) in determining public versus private beach access. The New York State Supreme court upheld a chain of title dating back over 100 years that defines the beachfront property boundaries as “the average southerly line of beach grass on the beach of the Atlantic Ocean.” In this hearing, the unique boundary line was upheld as the “grass line,” (to the trustees’ displeasure), and, according to coverage in New York magazine,  the property area was actually increased.

This is an unusual case, especially in relation to neighboring properties near Georgica pond. When we think of “erosion” we think of a “decrease” in size. For the most part beachfront properties along the East End are defined by the high water mark, or the mean of all high tides, and the Inconvenient Truth is that the high water mark is rising. The real issue at hand is how to fight rising tides in an effective, long-term way.

Many beachfront property owners feel that their property line is so arbitrary (or threatened) that the value of their investment is at risk. Their argument falls flat in one major way – beach erosion has been happening for decades, even centuries. What was once a very gradual, even unnoticeable transformation, however, is now visible on a year-to-year basis. Still, the buyers of these properties were aware of the risk of owning land right next to the ocean when they first made the purchase. The motto “buyer beware” must hold true even for the world’s wealthiest people.

But can anything be done against these ambulatory boundaries?
In one controversial case in East Hampton (near Georgica pond) a property owner planted 24 steel poles in a 3,000 square foot section that had been eroded from Hurricane Irene. This was all done completely without permission (including the security cameras she put up to monitor her poles against vandals). The owner was asked to appear in court and even though she didn’t show, nothing came of it – many of the the poles washed away in the next storm.

In another case presented in front of the East Hampton Town Zoning Board last year, a 100-foot-long by 10-foot-wide revetment, or rock wall, was proposed to protect a property just east of Shadmoor State Park in Montauk. The wall would combat further erosion on the east side of an “erosion stream channel” that runs from the ocean. Although a lot of questions were raised over the efficacy of this plan, the Zoning Board of Appeals approved the project last fall, as reported in The East Hampton Star.

According to the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, the mean high tide of the Atlantic Ocean will rise 2 to 5 inches by the year 2020, 5 to 12 inches by the year 2050, and up to 23 inches by 2100. There is going to have to be a serious legal precedent set as water levels continue to rise if people can expect to protect their properties. Ultimately, the fight against the ocean seems like a losing battle, one that will be lost faster without a unified legal front.

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