Pictured Above: An abandoned house completely below the water line in Lazy Point has long been an emblem of East Hampton’s fight against rising seas.
Low-lying East Hampton Town, which sits at the very tip of a long, low island could “physically transform into a series of islands,” as soon as 50 years from now, according to the Coastal Assessment Resiliency Plan for the town adopted unanimously by the East Hampton Town Board on Sept. 1.
The plan, years in the making, studied 11 low-lying areas of East Hampton in depth, including downtown Montauk, the area surrounding the inlet to Accabonac Harbor and Lazy Point in Napeague.
Many of the proposals were initially floated as part of the town’s Hamlet Study project, which concluded in 2018, when residents of Montauk in particular were shocked by the dramatic suggestion of retreating from the coastline, particularly in downtown Montauk.
The town suggested, both in the hamlet studies and in the CARP plan, that this retreat be accomplished by a new transfer of development rights program, allowing hotel owners near the ocean in downtown Montauk to build equivalent hotels farther inland.
The plan also recommends raising homes in areas of severe coastal flooding, elevating roads, building a levee between Fort Pond and Fort Pond Bay in Montauk and changing the zoning setbacks from the water on waterfront properties.
It was prepared by consultants GZA Geoenvironmental, Inc., Dodson & Flinker, and Coastal Ocean Analytics, along with the town’s Coastal Assessment & Resiliency Plan Committee, and was initially funded in late 2014 through a $250,000 grant from New York State.
The 80-page executive summary of the document is available online at www.ehamptonny.gov/574/Coastal-Assessment-Resiliency-Plan.
“East Hampton is at the end of a long, narrow and very low-lying island and is, of course, extremely vulnerable, not only to coastal storms and hurricanes, but to the long and slow progression of sea level rise,” said Alison Branco, The Nature Conservancy’s New York Climate Adaption Director, at an Aug. 4 public hearing on the plan, adding that the adoption of the plan will put East Hampton “at the front of the line to achieve funding” of projects outlined in the plan.
That funding would come from a variety of sources, she said, including the recently-passed federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the $4.2 billion New York State Clean Air, Clean Water and Green Jobs Bond Act, which will be put before New York voters in a referendum on this November’s ballot.
“East Hampton has created a blueprint and a to-do list for infrastructure upgrades, restoration projects, and yes, even relocations,” she said. “The plan does not have all the details, but it is an important first step. As we see every time we walk on the beach, drive on the roads or use electricity, we know we don’t have any time to waste. But East Hampton will succeed in the “wet future” that’s coming.
Concerned Citizens of Montauk (CCOM) Executive Director Laura Tooman agreed.
“This plan is a first step, and it is one of many steps that need to be done to make our environment more sustainable, our community more sustainable, Montauk more sustainable, but also our residents and business community more sustainable,” she said.
She added that CCOM has been working with East Hampton Town on these issues since Superstorm Sandy laid bare the shortcomings of infrastructure in Montauk, and will continue to work with the town to implement this plan.
Others believed the town should strike a harder line.
Defend H2O President Kevin McAllister said he believes the town should move beyond incentivizing property owners to relocate away from the shoreline.
“I’ve also gotta urge the board to think about the compelling track — condemnation,” said Mr. McAllister. “It needs to be date certain. When are we moving back? If you ID 15 years, that’s certainly a reasonable time…. The town board has to be all in on this. At some point you’re going to have to show tough love to property owners, extinguish development and return to coastal buffer zones.”
He pointed out the site of the former East Deck Motel adjacent to Ditch Plains Beach in Montauk, which is now the site of one large ocean-front home under construction, with three more slated to be built in a development called Montauk Colony.
Mr. McAllister said the town should have considered acquiring that property before it was purchased by a private director.
“I’m afraid its future is going to put more demand on the town board to stabilize a highly vulnerable area,” he said.
Jaine Mehring of Amagansett agreed.
“Ditch Plains is in the shadow of this massive construction, and we also know there are three more of those in the pipeline, and dozens more all over town,” she said at the Aug. 4 hearing. “It’s not just about where and when we retreat from the eroding shorelines. It is about where, what, how big and how deep we are building and redeveloping right now. Everything we do now symbolizes our priorities. Every day, everyone sees business as usual for building along our shorelines.”
She added that, while the plan addresses rising seawater, it doesn’t address the rising groundwater table, which is also a very real issue, especially in areas close to the shoreline.
“This issue is very real, and it’s as much or even more of a threat to our sustainability and infrastructure” as sea level rise,” she said.
Francesca Rheannon, a writer and climate activist who serves on East Hampton Town’s Energy Sustainability Committee, said she believes the town needs to begin work now to educate the public about the reality of “the hard choices we have to face.”
“We will face extremely tough choices in the coming years, which are absolutely necessary if we are to survive as a town,” she said. “The board needs to be more proactive in telling the town residents, and making sure people are prepared.”
She added that she had attended a public hearing two years ago at which residents of Gerard Drive, on a strip of land at the mouth of Accabonac Harbor, were shocked to hear they might need to move their houses.
“They were very angry,” she said. “I suggest the town hire a consultant to develop a public information campaign about the touch choices we must face.”