ActivePaper Archive A LINE IN THE SAND - East Hampton Press, 11/11/2015

A LINE IN THE SAND

Protesters dig in against Montauk beach project

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Surfers held a paddle-out protest on Sunday against the Downtown Montauk Emergency Stabilization Project to construct a sandbag revetment beneath an artificial dune on the beach along a portion of Montauk’s downtown. Below, Montauk residents formed a human chain in front of Army Corps of Engineers bulldozers on Friday of last week. Three protesters were arrested. KYRIL BROMLEY AND MICHAEL WRIGHT PHOTOS

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Hundreds of people showed up to the East Hampton Town Board’s weekly work session, moved from the Montauk Firehouse to the Montauk Playhouse due to space considerations, to protest the Downtown Montauk Emergency Stabilization Project, which began last week.

JAMES KATSIPIS

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Three people were arrested in Montauk on Friday after protesting the construction by forming a human chain in front of the Army Corps bulldozers. MICHAEL WRIGHT

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Surfers held a paddle-out protest on Sunday morning on the beach in Montauk where the work is taking place. KYRIL BROMLEY

As construction work on the Downtown Montauk Beach Stabilization Project began in earnest last week, the sight of heavy equipment gouging into natural dunes sparked a deluge of protest from residents, some of whom had long opposed the project, and others for whom it came into focus only with the grumbling of bulldozers.

Protests have continued each day since Thursday, November 5, and have resulted in the arrest of seven local residents who have staged sit-downs in the work zone.

Spurred by aerial photos of the 20-foot-deep by 50-footwide trench being dug into the beach, a new wave of opposition to the project—which was approved more than a year ago following nearly two years of planning, and criticism—came streaming to the East Hampton Town Board, appealing that it be stopped.

“They are going to get rid of a perfectly good dune to put in an artificial one that is going to get washed away,” James Katsipis, a Montauk native and one of the organizers of the latest protests—and one of those arrested—told the Town Board on Thursday night. “I don’t think it takes a scientist to see this is not a good idea.”

“You’ve said that this is signed, sealed and delivered,” said another Montauk native, Sarah Conway, echoing the words of Supervisor Larry Cantwell about the project, which has been ramping up for months. “It may be signed and sealed, but right now it is not delivered. We’re asking you to stop.”

When lawmakers said they were not inclined to halt the work, even if they could legally do so, the protesters took to the sand and halted the bulldozers themselves, if only briefly.

In separate protests on Friday, Monday and Tuesday mornings, small groups of protesters walked into the trench dug into the beach and refused to move, preventing bulldozers from beginning the day’s work. Seven of the protesters, three on Friday and two each on Monday and Tuesday, have been arrested, charged with minor offenses for disorderly conduct. Those arrested thus far were Mr. Katsipis and Ms. Conway, Tom LaGrassa, Lisa Spellman, Bess Rattray, Kurt Fuchs and Isabella Ornaf.

On Sunday, even though the contractors on the project were not working, more than 200 surfers and supporters gathered on the beach near the work zone for a “paddle-out” protest organized by the local Surfrider Foundation chapter.

The outrage came back to the speakers’ lectern on Tuesday morning at the Montauk Playhouse, where the Town Board held its monthly work session in the gymnasium to accommodate a crowd of about 250 who turned out—all but about 10 of whom were stridently critical of the project.

“This town, for as long as I can remember, has been at the forefront of aggressive environmental conservation—you set the example for other towns,” said Kevin McAllister, founder of Defend H20, which has filed a still-pending lawsuit against the town and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers seeking to stop the project. Mr. McAllister implored the board to effectively rescind its approval from 2014 and ask that the project be halted. “Relative to your history, this is a golden opportunity. You will be lauded and honored for your courageous decision.”

While Mr. McAllister and others have been critics of the project nearly since the its first mention, many of the speakers admitted having been woefully uninformed of the project’s scope during the nearly three years of conversations about how to best protect the beach following severe erosion experienced during Superstorm Sandy in October 2012.

That storm spurred an effort by oceanfront motel owners, former Supervisor Bill Wilkinson and former U.S. Representative Tim Bishop to win support for an Army Corps project to bolster the Montauk beachfront. The project was chosen from among five design options and was billed as a stopgap measure while plans for a larger project to replenish sand along a broad stretch of oceanfront in Montauk were added to the long-awaited federal Fire Island to Montauk Point comprehensive shoreline management plan, or FIMP. Some $800 million in federal funding has been directed to the FIMP plan, but the projects that will be undertaken are not due to be announced until this winter and most likely are still several years away from mobilization.

The project that began this week will excavate a trench along a 3,100-foot length of beach, to be filled with more than 14,000 sandbags, weighing some 3,000 pounds each. The wall of sandbags will be covered with sand to form an artificial, reinforced dune that is seen as able to hold back storm waves when natural beach would have yielded.

Defend H2O and several Montauk residents have claimed in their lawsuit against the town and the Army Corps that the approval of the project violated several sections of town and state environmental regulations that outlaw the construction of permanent hardened structures along the oceanfront. A magistrate has refused to issue a temporary restraining order against the work and recommended that the lawsuit be dismissed. The plaintiffs’ attorney, Carl Irace, said that the magistrate accepted claims by the Army Corps that the sandbag revetment was not a shore-hardening structure, prohibited by environmental regulation.

The sandbag wall has been billed as a “temporary” structure that is expected to have a useful life of 15 years, according to Army Corps specs, which have been much doubted by critics. Skeptics say the sandbag revetment threatens other portions of the beach with accelerated erosion, and may do little to stop waves in the event of a strong storm. Additionally, they have said that even in times of mild erosion, the wall of sandbags will still sit in the surf zone, exposed, leaving Montauk’s downtown area without a bathing beach at all.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Mr. Cantwell said he had made calls on Monday to the Army Corps and attorneys about what the financial consequences to the town would be if town officials asked that the work be halted, or paused. He said he has not received an answer yet.

“A number of people have brought up that there are alternatives that may be preferable and desirable and have broad community support, but we have to determine what those are and how they are going to be paid for and how long they would take,” Mr. Cantwell told the large crowd on Tuesday. “Everyone can agree this project has warts on it. Everyone here has their reservations and have had reservations all along. But before I can give you a specific answer, the board needs to get some answers.”

Some said that while the project may not be what people would like to see, it is a necessary evil until some more broad solution is completed.

“If Sandy had been 90 miles east, we wouldn’t be here today having a conversation about reinforcing our beach, we’d be talking about rebuilding our community,” said John Keeshan. “I wish there were a better way. I wish there were a silver bullet, because we all care about the future of our town.”

“I don’t want this either—but I don’t want to go to the dentist either, it’s a necessary item,” said Steve Kalimnios, an owner of one of Montauk’s oceanfront hotels and a longtime proponent of a federally supported project to bolster the Montauk shorefront. “We cannot play Russian roulette with our community.”