East Hampton Begins Strategizing How To Handle Sea Level Rise In Coastal Neighborhoods

Gerard Drive, which already suffers from chronic flooding during storm tides, is one of the areas consultants are weighing how residents can manage living in a threatened area as sea levels rise. KYRIL BROMLEY

Rising seas pose a substantial threat in the coming decades to most coastal areas of East Hampton Town, and some $5.5 billion in private property, according to an initial examination of the town as part of the development of its Coastal Assessment and Resiliency Plan.

East Hampton Town has begun a second phase of the study which is taking a closer look at each of 10 regions of coastline on its own, with an eye toward working out how the threats to each region should be specifically addressed as the dangers grow with the encroaching tides fueled by climate change.

At a workshop on October 28, consultants and town officials had gathered with residents of some of the most vulnerable areas to talk about what the most dire threats are and the various options that are available for addressing them in the coming years.

From protecting homes where they stand by raising them above expected flood waters, or bolstering their shorelines with sea walls or rebuilt beachheads, to relocating homes or buying owners out of eroding or increasingly unlivable properties, the consultants told residents that a wide range of options will be available to them, depending on how the community chooses to tackle the issue.

“I’m not sure we’re going to find the perfect answers, but we’ll help you ask the questions,” consultant Peter Flinker said. “We can answer questions like how to protect a house. But what we don’t know is, should we protect that house? Or should we move it elsewhere? In these workshops, we want to identify what’s important in each of these places, and that will help us determine what should be done about it.”

There are three general options for what can be done about sea levels creeping closer to developed neighborhoods, Mr. Flinker said.

In some instances, flooding can be accommodated while the area remains livable — by raising houses on pilings, so that they are above flood waters, or just “flood-proofing” them so that occasional flooding does not cause damage.

In other instances, where seas present an imminent threat of destruction, a house or neighborhood can be protected through the construction of sea walls.

But in some locations — or maybe in all locations, eventually — protective measures may not be enough, Mr. Flinker said, and the best option will be to relocate homes and other structures to higher areas, or abandon and raze them through government-funded buyouts.

“It’s not going to be a blanket strategy — different strategies can be applied to different areas,” he said. “In some areas, you may want to move away from the water; other areas, protect; other areas, allow flooding to occur and reduce the damage. It’s a matter of deciding which are the best fit with which neighborhood, and what is most valued in those places.”

Consultants and residents pored over areas of the town that already face chronic flooding and erosion problems at a workshop in October at the Amagansett American Legion. MICHAEL WRIGHT

Mr. Flinker’s planning and design firm, Dodson & Flinker, helped the town develop the Comprehensive Plan updates known locally as the hamlet studies, which took an in-depth look at each hamlet’s business district and drafted packages of recommendations for potential ways the town could use zoning and incentives to guide development more strategically over the next several decades. The five individual packages of analysis have each now spent more than three years in development.

The Town Board expects to begin adopting the studies into the Comprehensive Plan this winter.

The study of Montauk as part of that effort took the first steps at looking into ways the downtown area could adapt to the increasing threat of destructive storm surges from higher sea levels and potentially more dangerous hurricanes and nor’easters. One of the suggestions was that the town could incentivize the retreat of some hotels and businesses along the downtown oceanfront with development credits and new zoning allowances that would make way for new development in areas away from the threat of storm damage.

For the more focused study of the threat to coastal development all over the town, the consultants applied a similar approach of acknowledging the likelihood of rising sea levels and what threats it poses and then calculating what can and can’t be done.
Using the Gerard Drive neighborhood in Springs as an example, consultant Jennifer O’Donnell said that houses face a dual threat of increasingly frequent flooding and steadily eroding shorelines in some places. Both of those issues are going to get worse as the century wears on, and the houses in the area will face serious threats to their accessibility across low-lying causeways that have already been blocked by flooding on numerous occasions.

For houses in such dire straits, the future is mostly a matter of when these homes will become uninhabitable — not if they will. But the most dire circumstances will likely not come for decades.

“Projecting forward, there is a lots of uncertainty but … accommodating may make sense for another 30 years in a place like this, then move toward a managed retreat,” Ms. O’Donnell said. “Flooding here is going to increase. Your house is going to face substantial vulnerability.”

While sea level rise is gradual and will take decades for its worst effects to be realized locally, he said, there is value in starting the conversations about planning now, so that the slow pace of change made through generational guidance will have laid the foundation for the response that residents will be happy with when the day does finally arrive.

“Twenty years ago, this wasn’t really on our radar,” Mr. Flinker said. “It wasn’t part of the Comprehensive Plan. Now, it has to be.”