Kevin McAllister Sounds Warning for East End’s Coastlines

On Kirk Park Beach in Montauk Saturday morning.
At the site of a controversial shoreline protection project on the ocean off downtown Montauk last winter.

You may know Kevin McAllister of Defend H2O as a supporter of water quality throughout the East End dating back to his time as the Peconic Baykeeper, but Mr. McAllister, who began his career as a coastal scientist, is equally a student of the destruction that can be meted out by the sea.

Mr. McAllister has prepared a presentation, “Living on the Edge: Coastal Issues and Climate Change,” a detailed overview of the East End’s erosion problem spots, which he’s been presenting to environmental groups throughout the region over the past few months.

Kevin McAllister
Kevin McAllister at the NFEC lecture.

He was the inaugural speaker at the North Fork Environmental Council’s new Speaker Series at the Jamesport Meeting House Jan. 27.

“We have to be real about climate change. It is happening,” he told the crowd of North Fork residents who gathered to hear the talk. “I’m hopeful after this presentation that you’ll be better informed and more active in government processes.”

Mr. McAllister has been outspoken in his insistence that East End communities come to grips with the eventual need to move buildings away from the shoreline, instead of rebuilding alongside a dynamic system that involved numerous variables and incredible forces as waves that have crossed oceans batter the shoreline.

Adding to these natural forces, he said, are man-made structures — jetties, bulkheads, groins and now sandbagged beaches — that only serve to move erosion further down the coastline, leading to an arms race in shoreline reinforcement.

Mr. McAllister began studying the work of coastal geologist Orrin Pilkey in the 1980s, and describes himself as “a disciple of his thinking.”

“He says that engineered beaches are beach killers,” said Mr. McAllister. 

In addition to disrupting natural equilibrium, Mr. McAllister said engineered structures also disrupt the continuity of a shoreline, making it difficult for the public to traverse a coastline they’d been granted access to centuries ago by the Public Trust Doctrine.

One of the most egregious examples of such a structure, he said, is the jetty to the west of Goldsmith Inlet in Peconic, built in 1960 by the Suffolk County Planning Department.

The entrance to Goldsmith Inlet in Peconic, where sand frequently bypasses the one jetty  | Courtesy Group to Save Goldsmith Inlet

He called the jetty “Goldsmith’s folly,” and said that he’s in favor of it being cropped back or removed. Homeowners to the west of the jetty, who’ve benefited from the accretion of sand on their side, have so far blocked public attempts to remove the jetty.

“Our elected officials don’t have the political will to address this,” said Mr. McAllister, who added that the Army Corps of Engineers, which has proposed a sand replenishment project for nearby Hashamomuck Cove, “don’t want to touch Goldsmith Inlet.”

He was also critical of the placement of lines of boulders, dotting the shore like giant teeth, by a private property owner along a mile-and-a-half stretch of coastline at Cow’s Neck in North Sea. The boulders were placed there to dissipate wave energy to prevent erosion of the bluffs, he said, but they also interfere with the ecosystem at the shoreline, and with public access to the beach.

He also shared slides of Culloden Point in Montauk, which has been bulkheaded to the “point of no return” to a natural beach.

In Southampton Village, he shared photographs of a summer house surrounded by a corrugated metal bulkhead, which now juts out into the ocean to the point where members of the public cannot pass in front of the house except at extreme low tide. 

He said the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation had delegated oversight of the project to Southampton Village, which “has no business in coastal management.”

“This is egregious in my eyes,” he said. “This is a beach that has been stolen from the public.”

Mr. McAllister saved his largest criticism for the much-maligned $8.4 million Army Corps of Engineers sandbagged beach project in downtown Montauk, constructed in the winter of 2015-16. The work has since twice been damaged by nor’easters, most recently this past Monday, Jan. 23.

Mr. McAllister said the primary dune at the site was flattened in the 1950s in order to build the hotels within sight of the beach, and now that decision has come back to haunt the hotels.

He shared slides of last week’s damage to the sandbagged section of the beach.

“You ain’t seen nothing yet,” he said. “The next surge will end up with the wall of sandbagged exposed. We’re set up now to really have some problems.”

Exposed geotextile bags after Hermine | East Hampton Town courtesy photo
Exposed geotextile bags after 2016 nor’easter Hermine | East Hampton Town courtesy photo

The first nor’easter that damaged the project came through before the Army Corps had turned over maintenance of the beach to Suffolk County and East Hampton Town. Both of those local government agencies have agreed to pay to restore the beach after storms going forward.

“I suspect they might not be able to comply,” he said. “Our elected officials were all-in on making this happen. This was a colossal mistake.”

Mr. McAllister said he believes the federal government should work to buy out the hotel owners and reestablish the primary dune that once protected the rest of downtown Montauk from flooding.

“They need to get those structures out of there,” he said. “It’s only going to get worse while the sandbags are there. This stretch of shorefront, it has to go away…. How much money do you have to throw after bad to maintain a semblance of a neighborhood?”

Mr. McAllister also pointed out that the Village of Westhampton Dunes, which won a settlement with the Army Corps of Engineers over an incomplete groin field along their coastline, was guaranteed 35 years of sand being pumped on the beach as part of the settlement.

The settlement emboldened oceanfront property owners to replace their cottages there with larger summer houses and mansions.

But, he said, the Army Corps is going to be getting out of the sand replenishment business in 30 years.

The downtown Montauk project area outlined by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Army Corps of Engineers officials mentioned the close-out of beach replenishment, almost in passing, at a series of public meetings on their Fire Island to Montauk Point project last fall.

“The sand cavalry isn’t going to be around the corner every year,” he said.

Mr. McAllister also shared photographs of “sunny day flooding” along a stretch of Dune Road in Hampton Bays, which often floods, even without a storm, at extreme lunar high tides.

He said, however, that he doesn’t believe the town should raise the road.

“I’ve been trying to press on them to rethink this,” he said. “Don’t invest money in road building. It’s a losing proposition.”

“Climate change is real. Sea level rise is real,” he added. “We’re all agreed on the science, and the numbers are very concerning.”

Mr. McAllister said New York State has reached a consensus on figures that put sea level rise at between six and 10 inches by 2030, at between 16 and 30 inches by 2050, at between 29 and 58 inches by 2080 and at between three and six feet by 2100.

He said the state Department of Environmental Conservation was expected to codify those numbers for use in state regulations this year, but that hasn’t yet happened.

“This is not political, and it can’t be a political issue,” he said. “It’s important that you be an informed participant in the process when these plans are discussed.”

The North Fork Environmental Council will continue the Speaker Series, which will alternate between venues in Riverhead and Southold towns, for the rest of the year.

The next scheduled event is a workshop on environment and health by Beth Fiteni of Green Inside and Out on Feb. 25 at 1 p.m. at the Peconic Lane Community Center in Peconic.

The March lecture will be a discussion of the Preserve Plum Island effort with Louise Harrison of Save the Sound on March 31 at 6:30 p.m. at the Jamesport Meeting House.

Beth Young

Beth Young has been covering the East End since the 1990s. In her spare time, she runs around the block, tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

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