Southold Town will be going ahead with a coastal erosion study after all, two months after town board members seemed nonplussed when pitched the idea by the town’s Conservation Advisory Council.
Town Supervisor Scott Russell said at Tuesday’s work session that he’d like to form a group charged with determining the scope and funding sources for a study to help Southold respond to rising sea level and erosion along its shoreline.
Several members of the Conservation Advisory Council, a volunteer committee that advises the town trustees on waterfront issues, spoke with the town board about their concerns, including Doug Hardy, who wrote a paper titled “The Starvation of Southold’s Beaches” that was presented to the board in January.
Mr. Hardy said New York State is planning for the possibility that sea level will rise 3.5 feet by the end of the century.
“If you look at your favorite spot on the seashore, imagine it today at spring high tide,” said Mr. Hardy. “That will be low tide in 2100.”
Mr. Hardy said he believes many people who are unfamiliar with erosion are making poor real estate decisions when buying coastal properties.
“People have expectations of their properties that are unrealistic, and they are prepared to defend them,” he said. “It will be costly for the town to defend against.”
Town Supervisor Scott Russell said he believed Mr. Hardy’s report is very scientific and “does a good job starting to identify problems,” but said he’s concerned that some judgement calls made by Mr. Hardy might “drive stakeholders away.”
“There’s a lot more of a common interest,” said Mr. Russell. “We need to find common ground on the issues…. We really need to get all the stakeholders around the table. I fully subscribe to the science.”
Mr. Hardy said he believes the primary issues are the right of public access to the shoreline, and the changes to individual deeds in the future if properties shrink due to coastal erosion.
“As sea level rises, properties will be flooded,” he said. “Will they still retain title?.. This is going to be a very contentious issue. The state should be obligated to cover a lawsuit. They should make a determination. Until that’s resolved, any coastal defense or mitigation would be meaningless.”
CAC Member Jack McGreevy said he is concerned that several parts of Southold Town are going to become inaccessible if sea level rises.
“Southold is a very unique geographic area. It’s a narrow peninsula where it could burst through at at least two points,” he said. “There are many factors. We have to study it.”
Mr. McGreevy added that all the members of the CAC are property owners in town, and they care as much about property rights as waterfront property owners do.
“Our mandate is from the state. Our responsibility is for all of the natural resources of Southold Town,” he said. “We’re only dealing with one third — the shoreline. There is room to look to us for our wisdom and knowledge to be able to help our town.”
“You should realize there is no solution to sea level rise. There’s only accommodation. Eventually you’re going to lose,” said Mr. Hardy. “A thousand years ago, the solution was easy, you just picked up your tent and moved inland. That’s not the case now.”
North Fork Environmental Council President Bill Toedter, who was in the audience, said The Nature Conservancy had done a presentation for the NFEC a little more than three years ago, using software that showed where the flooding would be in a major storm. He said people who saw the presentation reported after Superstorm Sandy that the flood modeling was very accurate.
“When people saw this, and were able to say ‘that’s where my home is,’ they got it right away,” he said. “It’s a very powerful simulation.”
Mr. Russell half-jokingly thanked Mr. Toedter for volunteering for the new committee, which he said he hopes includes representatives from the DEC, riparian rights group Southold Voice, the town trustees and environmental groups. He plans to provide advance public notice of their meetings.
Mr. McGreevy said he’d like to see the issue addressed on a regional level. Town Councilman Bill Ruland said he hopes new East End Congressman Lee Zeldin is involved with the discussion.
“Some of these things are beyond the resources of the town, but common to the whole North Shore,” he said.
Councilman Jim Dinizio was unsure about the regional approach.
“There’s nothing you can do about the tide. It’s coming. Everybody recognizes that,” he said. “But we need to find out first what we are doing good in Southold Town… The first step should be trying to educate the public on what the town has done.”
“I get the whole regional thing, but we as town can do things that aren’t as draconian,” he said.
Mr. Russell later apologized for saying that Mr. Hardy’s report was antagonistic, but said he hopes committee members don’t make judgement calls about what people do with their private property.
“We just want to be open-minded,” he said. “Hopefully it won’t be contentious right out the gate. Let’s not assume the worst in people before we get started.”