The ravages of Superstorm Sandy haven’t entirely been cleaned up along our shores, but down under the Ponquogue Bridge in Hampton Bays, one of the most severely damaged pieces of our collective seaside lives is now being restored.
The south side of the old Ponquouge Bridge, long a popular diving and fishing pier owned by Southampton Town, is now being reconstructed with $1.9 million in aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, while the north side of the bridge is being redesigned as another 60-foot-long fishing pier, with flow-through grating to allow storm tides to rise and fall without damaging it.
The project, being constructed by Chesterfield Associates of Westhampton Beach, will include new decks and handrails, new bulkheads and access ramps and new safety features, and is slated to be complete in mid-summer of 2018.
Southampton Town Board members and Town Trustees, along with diving enthusiasts and business and civic leaders in Hampton Bays, gathered for a ceremonial groundbreaking of the project on the morning of Dec. 18. The park is named for former Town Trustee Edward Warner, who served as a Trustee for nearly 30 years, and whose son, Ed Warner Jr., is currently president of the Trustees.
“We’re surrounded by natural beauty here,” said Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman, who pointed out that the town is also revitalizing the Ponquogue Beach pavilion across Dune Road from the pier, and has recently built a new marine science education center at Tiana Bayside just down the street.
The tall bridge that drivers currently use to get to Dune Road was constructed in 1987, replacing a lower span whose abutments still remain, while the center of the original bridge has long been removed.
The south side pier is considered to be the best dive site in New York State.
“It’s an incredible habitat. I’ve been diving it for 46 years,” said diver Maria Hults at the groundbreaking ceremony. She said the pilings on which the old bridge stands are filled with anemones and serve as a nursery for young striped bass, and in summer, tropical fish come in on the incoming tide at nearby Shinnecock Inlet and find refuge there. She estimated that about 2,000 divers visit the site each year.
She added that the south side was deemed more important, from a habitat perspective, in part because the current is much stronger on the north side and contains less habitat because of the moving water.
The town had considered tearing down the remains of the old bridge in 2015, because the spot had proved an attractive nuisance in its deteriorated state that could have exposed the town to liability. But few town officials at the time understood what the site meant to divers.
Town Trustee Scott Horowitz said the project was made stronger by the active involvement of divers and civic leaders.
Town Councilwoman Julie Lofstad, a Hampton Bays native whose husband runs a commercial fishing boat out of the Shinnecock Inlet, within sight of the old bridge, said keeping the pier an active recreation area will be a boon to the business community, with visitors shopping in bait and tackle shops, eating in downtown restaurants and taking advantage of other amenities the town is looking to improve in Hampton Bays.
Hampton Bays resident Irene Tully said the site is also a favorite place for birdwatchers and is where the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Preservation and Research releases rehabilitated seals.
Town Councilman John Bouvier said he first dived at the site 45 years ago, and he said part of the reason the ecosystem among the pilings is so healthy is because of the tidal flushing from the inlet nearby.
Town Parks & Recreation Kristen Doulos urged members of the public to stay away from the site until construction is complete.
“This is a favorite spot for locals and for people coming into the area,” she said. “When it comes back, it will be better than ever.