The old Ponquogue Bridge in Hampton Bays, long a favorite spot for divers and fishermen, has been in severe disrepair since Superstorm Sandy, but divers want to make sure that if it is fixed, the marine habitat under the bridge remains intact.
A crowd turned out before the Southampton Town Trustees Nov. 3 to make their concerns known to the trustees, who oversee the waterways of Southampton Town.
Long Island Divers Association President Barry Lipsky told the trustees that about 1,000 divers use the old Ponquogue Bridge, and he has records of at least 1,500 dives made on that bridge this year alone, not including dives by spearfishermen.
He said his group hopes the town slows down the process of deciding what to do with the bridge and performs engineering inspections of the pilings, girders, joists and decking. He hopes the town will create a committee including divers to review the engineers’ findings.
“It’s the premiere dive location on all of Long Island. There’s nothing like this place,” he said, adding that there’s more marine life under bridge than at artifical reefs created at Shinnecock and Moriches inlets.
The spot is also used by police and fire departments for dive training and by marine science students at Stony Brook Southampton.
Christopher Paparo, an outdoor writer, photographer and fisherman who also runs the marine science laboratory at Stony Brook Southampton, has spent a great deal of time diving off of the old bridge.
Mr. Paparo showed the board pictures of the pilings under the bridge, coated with crusting corals, sponges and encrusting tunicates, sea anemones and red beard sponges, all of which provide habitat for crabs, lobsters, and fish raniging from blackfish to fluke to striped bass.
Trustee President Eric Schultz was quick to point out that the trustees have not yet received an application from the town to do any work on the bridge, but he hopes members of the public do speak when the board holds a public hearing on any future proposal.
Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst told the board she believes some misinformation about what’s happening with the bridge is being circulated in the diving community.
She said the town has just hired an engineering firm — Chesterfield Associates — to examine the options for the bridge.
“Our intention has not been to demolish anything that can be saved,” she said, adding that the town’s intent is to protect public safety, especially on the north side of the bridge, which was undermined during the storm.
She said the town is hoping to receive money from FEMA to do the work, but because of FEMA rules can’t be reimbursed if do the work before the receive the money from the federal government.
“FEMA is, how shall I put this, kind of a dynamic organization to work with,” she said. “They work at a pace that’s sometimes frustrating and there’s a lot of paperwork.”
She said the town’s public works department is considering cutting off the existing pilings at sea level to not disturb the mature marine habitat there.
“We have to work together on it. That is without question here,” said Ms. Throne-Holst, who added that she has just become a diver herself and understands the importance of the habitat there.
“This is something that is close to a new part of my heart,” she said. “I would very much on a personal level like to see this kept going.”
Long Island Divers Association Past President Laura Geramin said she would help with a fundraiser to raise money for the bridge. She said she didn’t want to see the pilings cut down, but would like to see the existing bridge restored.
“We dive there. We meet fishermen there,” she said. “We work together as a group. We go there specifically to clean that beach.”
Former Peconic Baykeeper Kevin McAllister, who has formed a new group called “Defend H20,” pointed out the habitat created by the pilings of the bridge took decades to develop, and couldn’t be quickly recreated.
“LIke a fine wine, it ages over time,” he said, adding that he hopes the pilings are left in place if the town refurbishes the rest of the bridge.
“I just don’t want Hampton Bays the hamlet and Southampton Town to miss the boat again here,” said Shinnecock Star Captain John Capuano. “We lost a beautiful lighthouse. This bridge is a landmark. We should do everything we can to keep this bridge here.”
Fly fishing guide Brewster Minton said the fishing at the old bridge at night is “second to none.” He said he hopes the town puts a ladder and liferings on the bridge.
“The current there is fierce,” he said.
Stacey Reister, whose 10-year-old daughter Mary has been advocating to have the bridge cleaned up, said she spoke with town workers who told her they couldn’t put garbage cans at the bridge because town workers would have to walk a long distance to empty them and it would disrupt the garbage collection route.
“Mary, being the vivacious 10-year-old she is, said ‘Mom, that’s a load of crap,'” she said. “That was nothing more than lazy. If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.”
Hampton Bays Civic Association President Janice Landis suggested the town board and trustees work together to create a marine park that integrates both the old bridge, Dune Road and the ocean beaches to the south.
Diver Mike Salvarezza said that he knows many divers who learned to dive on Long Island, but don’t dive here because most of the good dive sites are offshore. He said the Ponquogue Bridge provides one of the few locations on Long Island where divers don’t have to hire a boat to reach their site.
“Long Island has great marine life,” he said. “There are dozens, even hundreds of divers there on weekends.”
Diver Norman Bruhanan agreed.
“I’ve been diving the Ponquogue Bridge for 40 years,” he said. “It’s one of the few places you can go with a group of people and train. The Ponquogue Bridge is nationally known. It really should be preserved.”
“We’ll be awaiting the engineers report and see where we go from there,” said Mr. Schultz, of the trustees. “We’ll have another hearing when we have a formal application.”