November 18, 2015

Board Sandbags Move To Halt Beach Project

Ed Gifford. (click for larger version)
The lesson is this: if you love your town, pay attention to what your local government plans to do, because once wheels are in motion, officials probably won't put the brakes on.

And in this case the wheels are on the huge excavators and bulldozers on the beach in Montauk.

And on Monday, hundreds of residents who were shocked to see the beginning of the Army Corps of Engineers geotube project on the beach at the west end of town, learned the lesson the hard (structure) way. A week earlier, they begged members of the town board to stop the project.

At a November 10 town board work session attended by hundreds of unhappy constituents, East Hampton Town Supervisor Larry Cantwell told the crowd that he'd look into the legalities of halting the project. On Monday, he issued a press release stating the town board won't urge the ACOE to quit work.

"The Town Board sees no basis upon which to halt this project and fully supports completion of this interim protective measure until the completion of the Fire Island to Montauk Point Reformulation Study (FIMP)," the statement begins, after making note of the concerns raised since the stabilization project began.

In the release, Cantwell states, "It can't be emphasized enough that the current project is an interim protective measure until FIMP can finally be completed and the long-term stabilization solutions can be implemented. We will do everything in our power to cooperate with our federal, state, and county partners and strongly advocate that the preferred sand-only stabilization project be authorized, funded, and implemented as soon as possible."

The supervisor referenced the federal court decision that denied the request for a restraining order made by the group Defend H20, which has opposed the project from the outset and took legal action looking to stop it. The court has "recognized the real risks that a future significant storm poses downtown Montauk," Cantwell said.

He included a portion of the court's finding in the release. It speaks of the effects of Hurricane Sandy and the federal government's decision to fund disaster relief aimed at protecting coastlines. The decision states, "It is clear that any order delaying the project, for even a short period of time, will put the shoreline in danger, and expose Montauk's population to unnecessary risk."

"The calls to cancel this project are well meaning, but simply not in the interest of public safety. We recognize a 'sand-only' project is the preferred option, but it was rejected by the Army Corps for this interim project and won't be an option until FIMP is implemented. We will closely observe and track the construction activity of the contractors to ensure compliance with the significant environmental safeguards built into the project's design that were developed over the past three years of design and environmental review to ensure the protection of both our coastline and downtown areas," added Councilman Fred Overton.

During public discussion of the proposal early on, Assemblyman Fred Thiele derided the project as only marginally better than a sharp stick in the eye. However, this week he said, "For those entrusted with the public safety, doing nothing was not an option. Leaving downtown Montauk vulnerable for years would have been irresponsible . . . I believe the Town made the right decision in allowing the Army Corps of Engineers to proceed with the emergency project. Moving forward, we need to focus on working with all partners to ensure that under FIMP, an appropriate long-term coastal erosion management plan and soft, large-scale beach re-nourishment project are fully realized."

Suffolk County is partnering with the town to ensure the project is maintained – the feds are paying for the installation of geo-tubes, which will be filled with sand, then covered with more sand. Legislator Jay Schneiderman cautioned against seeing the reinforced dune project as an end product.

He predicted, "In a few years, a wide sandy beach will be constructed in front of the dune. Under this federally funded project, sand will be dredged from off shore and pumped onto the beach. The current project is necessary in the interim period to protect all of downtown Montauk if a major storm strikes. After the beach has been constructed, the current project will not be necessary and can be removed."

The statement did little to mollify opponents. Within minutes of its distribution, James Katsipis, a local photographer who spearheaded protests, urged friends on social media to attend the Tuesday morning work session and "continue to PRESS for a SAND ONLY project for Downtown Montauk. Please attend regardless of any statement made by Supervisor Cantwell in advance of this meeting since the mere request for a SAND ONLY project by the Town Board is not sufficient. We must insure that the Town Board INSISTS ON and only moves forward with a SAND ONLY project."

Appeasing opponents by simply asking for a "Sand Only" project, "falls far short on delivering this project in its only acceptable form," he wrote.

Katsipis was among the first demonstrators arrested on November 6, when the beach rallies began. Since then, more than a dozen community members have worn the cuffs in protest of the project, arrested for failing to move out of the way of workers and their machines on the beach.

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