As contractors working for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began work excavating the beach along downtown Montauk to fill geotextile tubes with sand to shore up the beach in front of downtown hotels, the Montauk community has watched in shock as excavators began digging into a dune at Kirk Park Beach.
After the community filled town hall Thursday night to let the East Hampton Town Board know of their displeasure with the project, about two dozen protesters gathered at the beach early Friday morning, forming a human chain to prevent bulldozers from beginning work.
Three of the protesters, Sarah Conway, James Katsispis and Tom LaGrassa, were arrested when they declined a police request to move out of the way of the bulldozers.
Mr. Katsispis, a professional surf photographer, began sharing videos and photographs of the work on Facebook earlier this week and urged friends and supporters of the Surfrider Foundation to show up at the town board’s meeting Thursday.
“They are chopping into a perfectly good dune to build an artificial one that’s just going to wash away,” he told the town board Thursday night. “I don’t think it takes a scientist to see that this is a horrible idea.”
Amy Grady, a coastal scientist who recently moved to Montauk and has researched the effect of climate change on sediment transport in near-shore systems, said she’s personally inspected geotextile bags in her work.
“They’re still considered experimental,” she said. “Waves break on them like on a solid rock revetment.”
Town Supervisor Larry Cantwell said he was “alarmed” when he first saw the photographs of the dune being dug away.
“I was shocked, actually,” he said. “I don’t think any of the members of this board anticipated that part of that dune would be removed. That’s troubling.”
Mr. Cantwell said the dune that was partially removed is at the western edge of the project, which extends eastward 3,100 linear feet in front of the hotels along the Montauk oceanfront, and is where the line of sandbags will tie back into the natural dunes.
“Additional dunes will not be like that,” he said.
The line of geotubes, which would be covered with sand, would be 50 feet wide.
Mr. Cantwell said, however, that he will not seek to stop the project.
“I know some of you won’t like it, but I’m just being honest with you,” he said. “It’s the best option available at this time.”
Mr. Cantwell said he believes the public’s energy would be best used to pressure the Army Corps to finish the long-languishing Fire Island to Montauk Point Reformulation Study, in the works since 1960, which is due to be released this winter.
That study is expected to include recommendations for sand replenishment along the Atlantic shoreline.
Mr. Cantwell said the Army Corps is now driving the process of the current project forward, and will need to honor its contract with H & L Construction for the $8.4 million project, which could have serious financial consequences if the town attempts to intervene.
“This project is signed, sealed and delivered,” he said. “I know you don’t want to hear this. This is also in court, and there’s not a lot more we can say.”
Kevin McAllister’s Defend H2O had filed a lawsuit over the project, and while they failed to get a preliminary injunction to stop it from going forward, the case is currently being litigated in New York State Supreme Court.
The crux of Defend H2O’s lawsuit is that the sandbags are shoreline hardening structures, which are not permitted in the town’s Local Waterfront Revitalizatoin Plan.
“We’re trying to educate and enlighten the leadership on this. The ramifications of this structure will be enormous,” Mr. McAllister told the town board Thursday night. “It sets incredibly poor precedent.”
Sarah Conway, who was one of the members of the public arrested Friday, said she’d been to many public meetings where there was plenty of opposition to the project.
“It may be signed and sealed, but right now it’s not delivered,” she told the town supervisor. “It is a long-term environmental disaster. It’s not a Band-Aid.”
Commercial fishing advocate Bonnie Brady described herself as “one of those ignorant Montauk types that wasn’t really paying attention to this.”
“People in Montauk suddenly have seen the visual, and for those that haven’t seen it on paper, the visual is very frightening,” she said, adding that she saw the project as a sort of “Sophie’s Choice” in the hope that a tidal wave of sand will arrive in the future.
“You have to destroy the dune in order to save the dune and that makes no sense,” she said. “Make a pause, find the time to explain it at a night-time meeting. Are there other funding sources that aren’t federal that would stand up a sand solution?”
Thomas Muse said he doesn’t accept the idea that the Army Corps is pushing the project.
He said that, when the project was originally proposed under former Town Supervisor Bill Wilkinson’s administration, Mr. Wilkinson often referred to the project as his plan.
“This was a closed-door deal,” he said. “The Army Corps said they were shocked when they received a proposal from the Town of East Hampton for a 3,000-foot rock revetment in downtown Montauk.”
“We know you inherited this project,” he said. “But we own this town, not the Army Corps. We requested the Army Corps to come here, and if we want to change it, by god, we’re going to change it.”