The major winter storm known as Grayson that struck Long Island on Jan. 4 carried more than just a fishing shack along Route 48 in Greenport out to sea. It also carried with it any notion left in many Southold Town officials’ minds that the status quo could continue when it comes to dealing with the power of the sea.
The storm breached County Road 48 in five places, severely damaging homes already precariously close to the high energy waves of the Long Island Sound, and opening up a new debate on the Southold Town Board over whether the town should participate in a cost-sharing agreement for an Army Corps of Engineers project proposed for the neighborhood.
Meanwhile, the Southold Town Trustees, expecting to be inundated with new repair requests in the wake of the storm, have implored Southold Town to take “a thoughtful approach to coastal resiliency not presently written into our code.”
“There is no debate about global warming or sea level rise. There is only debate over the rate at which the change is occurring,” Trustee President Mike Domino read aloud from a letter from the Trustees to the Town Board at the Town Board’s Jan. 16 work session. “Scientific evidence abounds regarding the increased occurrence of and severity of cyclonic storms associated with global warming. Anecdotal evidence exists regarding sea level and localized flooding. Many locations in town experience flooding with each spring tide, some with each full moon. Small localized flooding events may be inconvenient, but become irrelevant if the storm surge, high tide and storm duration all conspire to create a major episode along our cost. The evidence suggests that these events will become the new normal.”
The Town Trustees are responsible for granting wetland permits and overseeing access to waterways throughout town.
“If storms are more frequent and severe, and if the Board of Trustees approves the rebuild of a damaged bulkhead or staircase to the beach, are we committed to a second or third or fourth rebuild?” added Trustee Vice President Jon Bredemeyer. “At what point do we recognize that Mother Nature sets the parameters of the discussion?”
Mr. Domino and Mr. Bredemeyer recommended the town’s Conservation Advisory Council, or an independent study commission, develop new costal policies that could be enacted by the town board, including policies regarding “town-wide coastal retreat” and “comprehensive limitations on coastal erosion structures in relation to FEMA flood height.”
The epicenter of discussions about coastal policy today centers around Hashamomuck Cove, a swath of Soundfront property extending from just west of Town Beach to just east of the Soundview Inn, an area where the Long Island Sound is in some places just tens of feet from Route 48, one of only two east-west roads connecting the easternmost portion of the North Fork.
In 2016, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had proposed a $13.5 million project to build a six-foot-high berm, 8,500 feet long, along the coastline. The federal government would pay for 65 percent of the project, and would have counted on local sponsors, which could include state, county and local governments, to pay for the remaining 35 percent.
The local sponsors would also be responsible for paying 50 percent of the cost to maintain the beach over the next 50 years. At the time, the Army Corps had estimated 7,250 cubic yards of sand would be needed every five years, at a cost of a total of $4 million.
Southold leaders are skeptical that the five-year time frame is realistic, given the frequent damage to the area by winter storms.
“It’s feasible we’d have to do it annually, to maintain the profile,” said Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell at the town board’s Jan. 16 meeting.
Just last winter, the town had to do a major sand replenishment project at Town Beach to keep the Sound from breaching the highway there. Luckily, the Cross-Sound Ferry donated dredged sand to complete that project, and the town simply paid the cost to truck the sand from Orient to Greenport.
Southold Town Councilman Jim Dinizio shared a back-of-the-envelope calculation on his personal Facebook page in mid-January that estimated the project could cost the town $488,000 per year.
Lynn Laskos, who lives on Hashamomuck Cove and has been one of the biggest advocates for projects to shore up the neighborhood, told the board she thinks Mr. Dinizio’s figures are wrong.
“I feel the focus of what this project is really about has been lost somewhere along the line,” she told the town board at their Jan. 16 meeting. “This project is about County Road 48, not about homes along the road. It seems officials want to focus on the personal gain of the homeowners.”
Ms. Laskos said she had spoken with Army Corps of Engineers representative Steve Couch at 4 p.m. that afternoon, and Mr. Couch had told her the Army Corps is considering an option to regrade a 25-foot wide section of beach instead of the original option, which was to regrade a 50-foot wide section of beach, in the interest of doing something immediately.
She shared figures that estimated the new project would cost Southold Town $54,000 per year, not $488,000.
Mr. Dinizio said his figures were based on all the information that was publicly available prior to Ms. Laskos’ conversation with Mr. Couch.
“I think it’s unrealistic for him to put that on the table and say that’s realistically what we can expect,” said Town Supervisor Scott Russell. “I would love to have that conversation with him. I can’t wait.”
Mr. Russell added that Ms. Laskos’ figures include a “state share” of the cost, but “New York State, to my knowledge, hasn’t made any commitment to this. That’s the lion’s share of the local share.”
Ms. Laskos said she wants to hold a round table discussion with representatives from the Army Corps, the town, state, Suffolk County and all other interested parties, but Mr. Russell said he hopes the town board makes a decision about whether to agree to be a local sponsor at their Jan. 30 meeting, when Councilwoman Jill Doherty is available to join the discussion.
“I think these round tables are a way of some people not wanting to make a decision finally,” said Mr. Russell. “The town board needs to take a look at this. Are we willing to absorb the responsibility of a local share?”
“We need to end this, one way or the other,” said Mr. Dinizio.
“It’s not just the cost,” said Mr. Russell. “There is an underlying philosophical issue of whether the town should be in the business of restoring and protecting private property. It isn’t all about protecting Route 48.”
“We’re your protection now,” said Ms. Laskos. “We’re the county’s protection for the road…. I spent $36,000 on rocks. They’re all gone. So is my basement. My whole second floor got smashed in.”
Southold resident Doug Hardy described Ms. Laskos’ comments as an “artful presentation.”
“They paint a picture, but they don’t tell everything,” he said. “There’s an elephant in the room and that’s sea level rise.”
Mr. Hardy said New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation is estimating the sea level here will be one foot higher by 2050, and from 19 to 59 inches higher by 2100, and that the most recent peer-reviewed forecast puts the 2100 figure at closer to six or seven feet.
“That’s not fake news. It’s a forecast,” he said. “You’re not going to like what’s going to happen. It appears, and I hate to say this, that poor real estate decisions have been made and we have seen the sea creep closer and closer to property lines.”
“You only have a few options,” he said. “One is retreat.”
“A lot of us are not going to see 2050, and some might say they don’t care, but our grandchildren will,” he added. “This is the moment our town board should be making decisions on where our weaknesses are, for strategic fortification…. What you should be concentrating on is raising sections of Route 48 and moving landward. That will be costly, but it may survive 100 to 200 more years.”
“It’s not just real estate, but poor public policy for years,” said Mr. Russell.
“This, for me, is not global warming or a climate change issue,” said Mr. Dinizio. “I think the taxpayers of our town deserve an answer sooner, rather than later.”