November 22, 2006

Board Begins Coastal Regs Review

Cast against the backdrop of a 14-year, multi-administration effort to enact coastal protection regulations, three months since the public hearing isn't such a long time. During their November 14 work session East Hampton Town Board members began discussing revisions to proposed coastal regulations based on input from an August public hearing that drew a standing room only crowd to town hall.

The proposed regulations designate four new coastal zones and set rules relating to erosion control structures. New shore-hardening structures are banned outright in sections that are already predominantly free of them. Special permits are required to repair existing structures and new restrictions apply to how that can happen.

The original legislation includes provisions for emergency repairs and limited installation of temporary protection measures.

During the August hearing, some speakers complained that the law allows homeowners to protect damaged property only after an emergency instead of pro-actively. Others took exception to the zone their property was going to be included in. Some were set to be included in the most restrictive zone, even though neighbors had erosion control structures, like bulkheads, protecting their land. Most were residents of bayside lands in the town and decried the lack of fairness inherent in forbidding them to protect their land the same way their neighbors have.

Councilwoman Deb Foster is the town board's liaison to planning issues. Since the hearing, she said, a team comprised of representatives from the town attorney's office and the planning department, plus a special consultant, have worked to address concerns raised at the hearing.

The focal point of last week's discussion involved ensuring that language discussing the process for rebuilding homes damaged by erosion is clear. When the legislation debuted last summer, some believed it prohibited rebuilding altogether. That's not true, Foster said.

Chief environmental analyst Brian Frank noted that there was a misconception circulating — that the town had no prior provisions relating to rebuilding a waterfront home damaged by erosion. The current code states that if a structure is destroyed and is located within bluff or dune setbacks, it can be reconstructed in the same spot if the homeowner obtains a variance and a Natural Resources Special Permit from the zoning board.

According to an analysis of the hearing comments prepared by Frank, the current code doesn't define the word "reconstruction," nor is it specific about what kind of damage triggers the need for a variance. So, even if a home is damaged by fire or an accident, a variance could be required. The proposed legislation sets forth some circumstances (like a fire) that allow a homeowner to rebuild without getting a variance.

Additionally, according to the planning department expert, the existing code doesn't adequately define reconstruction. The proposal's description reflects the same verbiage used by state and federal agencies. Since the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the state Department of Environmental Conservation also regulate reconstruction of non-conforming structures, it is prudent to adopt a similar definition, Frank opined.

In his analysis, Frank offered a handful of examples of potential damage and reconstruction, as well as how the current code and proposed amendment handle them.

Contrary to what speakers noted at the hearing, rebuilding can occur, but a homeowner must procure the proper permits, and "wisely," Foster said, set the house out of the way of future erosion. Frank's examples note that in cases where no variances or NSRPs were required in the past, both would be necessary for a situation like hurricane-precipitated flooding of a home within 20 feet of a dunecrest, or a teardown renovation of an oceanfront house. Under the current code, neither situation prompted the need for a variance or NSRP.

The new law changes existing bluff crest setbacks from 50 to 100 feet. Board members debated the change, with Councilman Pete Hammerle in favor of retaining the 50-foot setback rule. Foster was adamant about the change and feels she has majority support for the measure. Fifty feet, she said, "is just too close for something as vulnerable as a dune."

During the hearing, representatives of the downtown Montauk business district emphasized the need for a special study of their area. That will come, Foster promised, but "real solutions are tough to find."

Sand nourishment is one way to go, but it takes "serious money," the councilwoman pointed out. The town has hired a lobbyist who has been successful in getting money for other municipalities, Foster reported.

As the debate continues, it promises to be controversial. Councilwoman Pat Mansir told The Independent that she opposes simply telling landowners they may have to watch their property wash away. "There are techniques to try to build up our shore," she said. "I just don't believe in retreating . . . it is incumbent on government to do more than we have before we ask people to give up their homes."

The discussion of the legislation is expected to move forward in two sessions. The next go-round, probably in mid-December, will focus on the specific erosion zones. Once the board has gone through all the comments and revised the proposal, members will have to decide whether the revisions are extensive enough to require a new public hearing.

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