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« 10 Percent Increase In County Park Attendance In 2019 | Main | SUFFOLK CLOSEUP - Climate Change Is Happening Right Here »

SUFFOLK CLOSEUP - Climate Change Coastal Geology And Smithtown


By Karl Grossman

Climate change is happening. As a result of sea level rise caused by global warming, lowland coastal portions of Long Island will be impacted. This area has an extremely mixed, indeed a contradictory record—that continues—when it comes to its shoreline. There has been both folly on the coast and also people pressing for understanding of coastal dynamics.

The most recent folly has occurred in Montauk: the placement by the Army Corps of Engineers of 14,200 1.7- ton sandbags along Montauk’s shore in 2015 at a cost of $8.9 million. Storms have since hit the 3,100-foot-long stretch of sandbags hard and many had to be re-buried. A year before, in 2014, the Suffolk Legislature passed and County Executive Steve Bellone signed a “cost-sharing” measure providing that the Town of East Hampton pay half the cost of “maintenance” of the sandbags and Suffolk County pay the other half.

The vote was 17-to-1 with only Legislator Al Krupski of Cutchogue voting no.

Mr. Krupski predicted the cost of “maintenance” of the Montauk sandbags would run $1 million a year. He was prescient. On this July 16, the Suffolk Legislature passed a bill providing $502,000 in payment for its share of “maintenance” over the past year and Mr. Bellone signed it.

This means that you, as a Suffolk County taxpayer, are shelling out your money for “maintenance” of the Montauk sandbags—and there’ll be years of “maintenance.”

“I am very familiar with the processes of coastal erosion and the dynamics of the shoreline,” said Mr. Krupski in a 2014 letter to fellow legislators. For 20 years he was a member—14 years president—of the Southold Town Board of Trustees which oversees the shores and adjoining waters of Southold Town. “I believe Suffolk County should not endorse a project that hardens the shoreline. This is a project that, one, is sure to fail and cause accelerated erosion to adjacent properties, and two, puts the maintenance on the shoulders of the entire county.” 

It was not just Mr. Krupski seeking to stop the folly. There were demonstrations and civil disobedience on the beach with protesters arrested trying to stop bulldozers installing sandbags. There was a lawsuit with the Sag Harbor-based organization Defend H20 as key plaintiff.

In recent times, an East Hampton Town-commissioned Montauk Hamlet Report was done and urged relocation of the first line of structures along the Montauk oceanfront, mostly vulnerable motels—but some Montauk business people are objecting. 

Another example of this area’s mixed, contradictory shoreline record is happening in Smithtown. The town is now considering changes in its coastal management plan including restrictions on development in areas likely to be affected by sea level rise. The changes would require that sea level change be considered when siting, designing or approving waterfront projects. They would also require property owners to when “practical” move houses threatened by coastal erosion. The construction of “hard structures”—such as sea walls and rock groins—would be allowed only as a last resort.

But at the same time, the Village of Nissequogue, which is within the Town of Smithtown, is seeking what Kevin McAllister, H20 founding president, describes as “an easing of restrictions for people seeking to build sea walls. The village trustees are no longer requiring environmental review and have eliminated any reference to the structures having an adverse impact on beaches. The village’s plan is in contradiction to the town’s efforts.” He testified against the proposed revisions at a recent public hearing in Nissequoque.

I think back to the 1960s and Smithtown’s supervisor, John V.N. Klein, when he was also chairman of the then Suffolk County Board of Supervisors challenging the Army Corps of Engineers’ scheme to place groins—jetties of rocks extending out into the sea—along the Dune Road Westhampton oceanfront. Mr. Klein understood that with groins it was a case of “robbing Peter to pay Paul.” They would catch sand moving in the ocean’s westward “littoral drift” along Long Island’s south shore and broaden the beaches where they were placed, but at the same time deprive the shoreline to the west of sand. His understanding has been fully confirmed since then by experts in the relatively new science of coastal geology. Mr. Klein faced intense opposition from beach house owners. As a reporter for the daily Long Island Press, I covered the scene as beach house owners paraded before the board demanding groins be built. 

The groins, indeed, caused devastation. Owners of beach houses on the west, many battered, some lost, brought a lawsuit against the Army Corps, the state and Suffolk County. There was a settlement under which $80 million—of our tax dollars—is being spent to dump sand over a 30-year period along a coastline caused to erode by the placement of the 15 groins. 

Now especially with climate change and sea level rise, we must get real about the coast—and how to deal with climate change.

More next week.

Karl Grossman is a veteran investigative reporter and columnist, the winner of numerous awards for his work and a member of the L.I. Journalism Hall of Fame. He is a professor of journalism at SUNY/College at Old Westbury and the author of six books.   

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