Saving Montauk: Army Corps Poised to Sandbag Downtown

Surfing cartoon by Mickey Paraskevas
Cartoon by Mickey Paraskevas

It’s been clear for the last 20 years that the ocean fronting Montauk is increasingly threatening to flood downtown there. Before 20 years ago, there were no problems. I remember as a kid enjoying running along the dunes that fronted the motels. Montauk’s dunes downtown were impregnable then. And the road that runs parallel to the ocean landward of the motels was always dry.

The first inkling that there was a problem came when, increasingly, in the 1990s, that road began to occasionally flood during high tide at its eastern end where it dead ends at the Surf Club. It never got so bad you’d have to shut down the road. But there were times it would be in a foot of water. At some point, I believe, they were able to solve that problem with a new drainage solution. But sometimes it would come back. And then the flooding also began happening out at the western end of Ditch Plains, a solution to which happened when the town put in a large drainage pond (in what had until then been wetlands).

Then, just three years ago, during a storm at high tide, the sea rose and tore out the dunes once again in front of the motels along the ocean. I say once again because this had happened before. The owners of one of the motels, on their own, put concrete rings in front of the motel to trap sand. It was successful for a while, but soon the sand got washed back out.

Then, two years ago, during a high tide, the sea broke through the dunes in several places and begin to spill over into downtown and rapidly began to spread. Local residents considered it an emergency and called Town Hall, and Supervisor Wilkinson responded by quickly sending bulldozers to Montauk to push sand into the breaches. Fortunately, that stopped the flooding. But then it happened again and again the bulldozers came.

At this point, the Supervisor made an emergency call to our Congressman Tim Bishop that Montauk was in imminent danger. And the result was a call to the Army Corps of Engineers to survey the situation.

The Army Corps of Engineers has often been criticized for coming in with too little too late. But in this case, what they saw alarmed them too. And they realized that something would have to be done quickly.

The Army Corps has been looking to implement an extremely expensive program, costing approximately $700 million, that would protect the South Fork coastline from Fire Island to Montauk Point. That, however, is down the road. For this current Montauk emergency, they proposed to immediately protect the Montauk oceanfront with sand and sandbags over a span of about 3,000 vulnerable feet of shoreline. Everyone cheered. This was a gift to Montauk. It would cost nearly $10 million to get done, but they would do it.

Wilkinson was still in office in the winter of 2013–14 when the Army Corps said they couldn’t get this job together for the 2014 summer season because approvals for various permits were slow in coming. The Army Corps said they would get it done for the summer of 2015. Montauk would just have to cross their fingers and hope they could get through another year.

There were also those opposed to this project, not because they feel it wouldn’t help for the number of years necessary to get through to the full South Fork Project, but because they feel it should be a much bigger project. Or it should not happen at all because a) it might block their ocean view or b) because it might ruin a surfing spot or c) it might make it difficult, climbing the dunes, for the handicapped. You would be amazed what people will dream up to oppose anything that changes anything from the way it is now.

And then, last autumn, the motel owners objected to the timing. They couldn’t bear to have the Army Corps out there in the summertime with their heavy equipment because the tourists who provide their livelihood would have their lying on the beach time disrupted.

To that, the Army Corps of Engineers said, well, what we’ll do then is have some preliminary work done in the springtime, and then finish up the work in the fall—in other words get through this upcoming summer season with our fingers crossed.

Yes it’s true. Odds are we can get through this summer again unscathed. And there are always the town bulldozers.

The most recent objection came this past week when lawyers for the Surfrider Foundation, a grassroots environmental organization, challenged that the Army Corps plan did not comply with the Local Waterfront Revitalization Plan. The Town doesn’t permit the intrusion of “hard structures” on the beach unless these structures have an expiration date for when they will be removed, presumably because the crisis is over—in this case, that will be when we shift over to global cooling.

The East Hampton Star wrote about this glitch last week. Town shorelines are divided into zones. There are four zones in town. In some of these four zones, in Springs, for example, you can get a permit for a hard structure with a promise to remove it later. Homeowners in Springs recently got that exemption when they applied to put in a 550-foot-long rock revetment. But that was in the Springs zone. There is no exemption for downtown Montauk. In Montauk’s zone, you can NEVER put in hard structures.

I recall about 15 years ago, the Suffolk County Water Authority announced plans to put in new underground pipes throughout certain East End towns. You would not have believed the uproar. There were jurisdictions where you couldn’t dig down without a permit. There were concerns about where the pipes would be going. There were concerns that the different communities had not been consulted.

Guess what. The Suffolk County Water Authority simply announced, out of great frustration, that they were not going to listen to anybody because they were essentially a law unto themselves. You’re talking water here, I recall one official saying. And so that shut everybody up. And good water comes out of your tap today.

I have a friend who told me the other day that the surfers couldn’t care less about downtown Montauk and that if the motels were washed away it might be a good thing for the quality of the waves, anyway.

There are some things that are more important than others, and it is a good Town Board that might find the courage in this particular case to just tell everybody to put a sock in it. Towns can’t legislate marijuana laws, sex offender laws, seatbelt laws and whether we want to go to war or not.

I would put avoiding flooding a downtown in that category. And I would say that the Army Corps of Engineers, which not long ago successfully saved two miles of what is now the Town of West Hampton Dunes from the sea, is well equipped to give us what is, in fact, a magnificent gift of unexpected federal money.

I say this even though I know, dude, there is a back way to get out to Ditch by coming into town on the Montauk Parkway, going down Second House Road, Industrial and Flamingo and then Old Westlake Drive for Ditch instead of having to splosh through that gnarly flooded downtown.

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