While there was general support for moving downtown Montauk landward at a public hearing before the East Hampton Town Board Dec. 6, many speakers were concerned that the town’s plan for coastal retreat may not be enough, in light of recent climate reports.

Strategic retreat from the oceanfront was one of the highlights of a hamlet study plan for Montauk, revealed in February along with a series of hamlet studies for all five of the town’s distinct hamlets —  Montauk, East Hampton, Amagansett, Wainscott and Springs.

The coastal retreat plan would be conducted in three phases — first by encouraging the motels and businesses in the most threatened flood zones, through a voluntary buy-out program, to move inland to areas that could be rezoned to accommodate them.

In the second phase of the relocation plan, development rights cold be transferred from the oceanfront hotel properties, incentivizing hotel owners to redevelop other properties just to the north. The third phase would entail further relocation of businesses, moving up the hill along South Essex Street, along with raising Montauk Highway.

Resident Paul Fiondella pointed out at the Dec. 6 hearing that both the Fourth National Climate Assessment, released the day after Thanksgiving, and a paper in the journal Nature released in early December show that climate change will happen faster than the global average along the mid-Atlantic coast.

“These two studies published in the last couple weeks have a direct impact on the proposal,” said Mr. Fiondella, who added that the National Climate Assessment shows that warming along the northeast coast will be three to four times higher than the global average, with a potential sea level rise of 11 feet by 2100.

“It’s not going to be what the Army Corps of Engineers is trying to convince us of — three feet,” he said. “We’re not just going to need to retreat from the ocean. We have to go vertical. The science is weak. The authors need to look at more current science.”

“I’m seeing changes on the beaches every day,” said Arden Goodale. “We have to start taking action now… We need to start moving quickly. What does retreat look like?”

Michael McDonald of Springs said he’s been involved in disaster recovery, working in the Caribbean after recent devastating hurricanes. He advised that residents of East Hampton should spend the next five years looking clearly at what types of disasters they could face in the future.

“We need to build serious ‘games’ over the next five years. What are the gaps we’ve got and what are the solutions,” he said. “We need to hear not just from experts that we pay to come in. It should be from the base of the community, at the neighborhood level as well as the hamlet. Build from as-is to five years to 30 years out. It’s very doable, and not terribly expensive as a tabletop exercise, and you have citizens making decisions… I think we can do a very good job, but we still may have to face some fairly significant tragedies.”

Krae Van Sickle of Springs said he would like to see the plan include energy resiliency, perhaps including a microgrid providing electricity in the event of a disaster on land near the Montauk Firehouse, on a hill far from downtown.

Citing “the rapidity of the change of climate conditions indicated by recent reports,” including the reports mentioned by Mr. Fiondella, Mr. Van Sickle suggested that critical facilities, including the IGA grocery store, could be relocated to land near the firehouse that is currently for sale.

“All the land west of South Edison and south of South Etna [Avenues] is at 15 feet,” he said. “That location could be wiped out any day. It’s going to be inundated much sooner than the science that was believed to be sound prior to these recent reports.”

Attorney Chris Carillo said he represented about 90 residential properties known as Surfside Estates, which has for a long time had one beach access to the ocean that is now impassable.

“There was a cutout where we all hung out, and the boardwalk was damaged,” he said. “The water at any tide is now up against it. There’s no beach access there.”

“This needs to be addressed right away,” he said. “Some of us do or don’t agree with the long term retreat plan, but we ned to get the beach back ASAP. It’s really dangerous and a sad situation down there for everybody.”

“This is not a retreat plan. It’s a preliminary endorsement that pulling back from the shoreline is necessary. A retreat plan is going to take a lot and lot of time,” acknowledged Concerned Citizens of Montauk President Laura Tooman, the first of about a dozen-and-a-half speakers at the hearing. “We support the general vision. This is a plan that does not ignore the inevitable. It allows Montauk to flourish environmentally and economically in light of some pretty significant foreseen changes to the coastline.

“I suggest the process begin as soon as possible,” said Captain Andrew Brosnan, the chairman of the Eastern Long Island chapter of the Surfrider Foundation.

“There are a lot of good suggestions. I’m most encouraged by the managed retreat from the shoreline,” he added. Mr. Brosnan added that he believes an idea to create a special taxing district to pay to renourish the beach along the waterfront “has some merit,” but added that it should be limited to those properties adjacent to a recent Army Corps of Engineers project that shored up the beach in front of a swath of downtown hotels with geotextile tubes filled with sand.

The sandbag project in downtown Montauk
The sandbag project in downtown Montauk | Defend H2O photos

“The beachfront motels don’t have a beach six to eight months a year. The beach trucked in in the spring at expense to East Hampton taxpayers,” he said. “It has exacerbated erosion in downtown Montauk.”

“This is a critical first step,” added Alison Branco of The Nature Conservancy. “Long Island is being battered by storm after storm, as well as the slow, steady creep of sea level rise, which is fundamentally changing the quality of life… Nowhere is it being felt more acutely than Montauk.”

“Planning for retreat is the only sensible solution,” she added.

Carl Irace, an attorney for Defend H2O, said it is the position of the advocacy group that public funding of beach nourishment to benefit commercial property owners downtown “improperly devotes public funds to maintain a false panacea.”

“There’s no way to avoid the inevitable,” he said. “Either the buildings are removed from harm’s way voluntarily without destruction or loss of property, or nature takes it by force.”

Bonnie Brady of Montauk said the Army Corps of Engineers project downtown destroyed the beach there.

“The project cut into the dune and it destroyed the ability of the beach to protect itself,” she said. “We’ve already had enough fixing with the Army Corps of Engineers project. A lot of people in Montauk are tired of being the guinea pig.”

Ms. Brady referred to a series of community meetings held earlier this year known as ‘charrettes’ as ‘charades.’

“The people of Montauk did not have an adequate say,” she said. 

When the town has a meeting at night in September, she added, “most people are either working, taking care of their kids and doing homework. People that live there year-round were not heard.”

“Put a pause and get some real input from year-round people,” she said.

Henry Uihlein of Uihlein’s Marina on West Lake Drive said he’d been too busy working, being involved in the community and taking care of his family to be involved with the hamlet study process.

“I made a comment that I heard that they want to move all the hotels off the beach and people thought I was nuts,” he said. “I would like to know what’s going on and I would like more time.”

“If it goes through, my property’s for sale if anybody wants to buy it,” he added.

The town board agreed to hold the public hearing open for written comment for 30 days.

“There’s a great deal of work and planning that still has to take place,” said Town Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc. “Having the community involved is crucial.”

Beth Young
Beth Young is an award-winning local journalist who has been covering the East End since the 1990s. She began her career at the Sag Harbor Express and, after receiving her Masters from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, has reported for the Southampton Press, the East Hampton Press and the Times/Review Media Group. She founded the East End Beacon website in 2013, and a print edition in 2017. Beth was born and raised on the North Fork. In her spare time, she 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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