State Assemblyman Fred Thiele called the Army Corps of Engineers’ new plan to shore up downtown Montauk “better than a sharp stick in the eye.” Former East Hampton Councilman Dominick Stanzione called it a lemon. One downtown Montauk hotel owner said the Army Corps’ new plan is a drop in the bucket compared with what he spends on beach replenishment each year. But even detractors said they were happy to take what they can get from the Army Corps.
The Army Corps of Engineers presented several options to shore up downtown Montauk last fall, but were met with resistance on options that involved hardening the shoreline with groins and rock revetments. They unveiled their new plan, to install geotextile bags filled with sand along a 3,100 linear foot stretch of beach in front of downtown Montauk hotels, at a meeting at East Hampton Town Hall Wednesday afternoon. Their original options had been slated to cost between $20 million and $25 million, but this new project is slated to cost just $6 million.
Since the fall, said the Army Corps’ post-Hurricane Sandy recovery manager Anthony Ciorra, the federal government has changed its strategy in spending the $700 million it was allotted in post-Sandy aid.
“I don’t think we had the rules in the fall,” he said. “Early on, because we did not have the experience, we made assumptions the projects could be long-term, but policy makers at headquarters in Washington want to see one-time actions.”
Army Corps planner Steve Couch said the Army Corps is now just looking to do short-term projects that don’t involve the $4 million cost of mobilizing a dredge, until the entire 83-mile long Fire Island to Montauk Point Reformulation Study, in the works since 1960, is complete. The good news, he says, is that the FIMP study is expected to be finished next year, with projects beginning in 2016 and continuing as long as the dredge is mobilized.
“That allows for more effective implementation of the project over the whole scale,” he said. “It’s very expensive to mobilize a dredge.”
Mr. Couch said he has high hopes the so-called FIMP study will actually be completed, since there is now a promise in place from the federal government to fund the work, and his office will not have to go back to Congress to ask for money.
“[Hurricane Sandy] was a game-changer for this project in two respects,” he said. “It allows the project to be reconstructed at full federal expense, and the funds remain available until expended.”
Mr. Couch said in the short term, the Army Corps plans to create a 13.5-foot high dune using the geotextile bags, which would be filled with 45,000 cubic yards of sand, which could be slurried and filled into the bags in place. The Army Corps would then create a 45-foot wide berm in front of the dunes to raise the height of the beach. Each geotextile bag would measure 5.5 feet by 3.5 feet by 1.5 feet and would weigh 2.4 tons.
The problem for East Hampton, though, is that the town or the county, depending on which agency agrees to be the local sponsor for the project, will be required to pay the maintenance costs on the short-term project until the long-term project is built, unless a major storm wipes out the berm and a state of emergency is declared, in which case the Army Corps would rebuild the project. The local sponsor would also be required to indemnify the federal government for the project. Mr. Couch said the Army Corps had used an estimate of $60,000 as annual maintenance costs, but said that number was “just a placeholder.”
The state DEC, which is coordinating the local effort, would need East Hampton to decide whether to sponsor the project by April 30, said Mr. Couch, though DEC coastal erosion management director Sue McCormick said she could probably push that date back to May 15. Army Corps representatives said the project would likely take six months once begun in early 2015, and would have to adhere to a tight timeline to be finished before the 2015 summer tourism season.
“At this point, we have not gotten an affirmative from either the town or the county,” said Ms. McCormick. “That is a big sticker. Without a local sponsor, this project doesn’t happen.”
Steven Kalimnios owns the Royal Atlantic Resorts Hotel in downtown Montauk, and he says he has already shored up the beach in front of his hotel with 25,000 yards of sand over 900 feet. He said he has personally spent $2 million already nourishing the beach over the past 12 years, and he estimated he spends between $160,000 and $170,000 each year maintaining the beach.
“I do not want to be someone who sounds ungrateful by any means, but I need to shed some light on the numbers,” he said. “It needs to be larger. I look forward to working with anyone on these numbers.”
Chris Poli of the Ditch Plains Property Owners Association asked why Ditch Plains was not included in the project, after the town board asked that his area be included last fall.
Mr. Poli pointed out that far more homes in the FEMA floodplain are in Ditch Plains than in downtown Montauk. He estimated the economic value of properties at risk downtown at $100 million, while he said realtors conservatively value the homes in the floodplain in Ditch Plains at $200 million.
Mr. Couch said the project in downtown Montauk involves erosion damage, not flood inundation damage.
“The solution to the problem in downtown Montauk is more of an erosion issue, and less of a height issue within the floodplain,” he said.
Zachary Cohen offered his services in helping the Army Corps get a better estimate of the economic assets at risk, in the hopes that better numbers will help the Army Corps expand tien immediate project.
Montauk Chamber of Commerce President and Gurney’s Inn general manager Paul Monte said he’s happy to see that something is actually happening in the short term, but questioned how long it would take before the major FIMP project begins.
Mr. Ciorra said portions of the greater project can be started before all the permits are in place.
Concerned Citizens of Montauk Executive Director Jeremy Samuelson begged the board to get an accurate number on the maintenance costs before signing on to the short-term project. He estimated that, using Mr. Kalimnios’s numbers, the maintenance could cost more than $1 million each year.
“Before we sign anything, we’ve got to know what the financial impact is here,” he said. “We’re potentially signing up for something that will blow us out of water on 2 percent tax cap with just this one project.”
“We’re gonna make the best of this that we can,” said Town Supervisor Larry Cantwell. “The good news here from the community point of view is there’s pretty strong consensus…. There are a lot of details to work out, but there’s some pretty good consensus in the community about moving forward. …..that’s a good thing.”