Erosion along the Redwood peninsula has been “mind-blowing” and “astonishing” in recent years, a former top regional environmental official told the Sag Harbor Village Harbor Committee last week in making the case as to why Josh Schwartz should be allowed to rebuild and extend his aging bulkhead at 188 Redwood Road on Sag Harbor Cove.
Having faced months of determined resistance from the committee, an equally determined Schwartz brought a heavy hitter as his consultant to the board’s Zoom meeting on January 6. Chuck Hamilton, who was the DEC’s regional natural resources supervisor for 33 years, offered an extensive slideshow to show that Schwartz’s bulkhead hadn’t caused the deep scouring of the property next door at 192 Redwood Road or the broader erosion further south along the entire west-facing shoreline.
The DEC has approved the bulkhead plan, and so have the Army Corps of Engineers and the Southampton Town Trustees. But since October, when it first opened its hearing on the Schwartz application, the Harbor Committee has been set on saying “no,” citing the village wetlands code discouragement of shore-hardening structures unless a principal structure is threatened by erosion. At the January 6 session, Chairwoman Mary Ann Eddy hung tough and predicted a denial if the application isn’t changed.
While bulkheads are widely recognized for causing accelerated erosion at adjacent downstream properties, Hamilton blamed the deep pocket of erosion just south of the bulkhead on a return flow of water driven northward close to shore by a “wave attack” that he said has destroyed the entire intertidal marsh all along the Redwood shoreline to the south.
“This only happened in the last 20 years, and not for the 40 years before that,” he said, even though the bulkhead has been around since the 1950s. Theorizing that “a combination of a lot of factors” had caused the phenomenon, among them increased boat traffic, he said he would urge Sag Harbor to impose a “no wake” speed limit in the area and to “plant marsh right now” in a bid to restore the entire shoreline before the unbuffered beachfront succumbs to accelerating erosion “just like soup.”
But after about an hour of Hamilton’s presentation, the board would not budge from its position that the old bulkhead is the likeliest reason for the deep scouring next door. Restoring it — and extending its 90-degree “return” along the south property line, as Schwartz proposes — won’t solve the overall problem.
Eddy pointed out that the only deep pocket of scouring along the entire westward-facing Redwood shoreline is immediately south of the bulkhead. “We’re not really convinced any of the potential solutions you propose,” such as vegetative plantings to supplement the return extension, “are really going to safeguard your property,” she told Schwartz.
Board member Will Sharp said the scouring “looks like a domino effect” that progressed west and south as the Redwood shoreline to the north and east was armored or hardened in past decades.
“There needs to be a holistic approach to this,” he said.
Hamilton said that the bulkhead couldn’t be the problem because shoreline erosion increases “the further away you get from the structure — it’s a different process.” He offered a plan to plant spartina alterniflora just offshore on Southampton Town Trustee bay bottom to encourage the return of an intertidal marsh; add five more feet of vegetative buffer at the foot of the lawn; and possibly place “rocks” and vegetative coir logs to protect the beach — in addition to extending the Schwartz bulkhead return to 24 feet.
The board’s environmental consultant, Chic Voorhees, told Hamilton that he did not “100 percent believe” that the bulkhead has “nothing to do with” the scouring at 192 Redwood. “This is basically an unprotected corner” and “a partial factor” was the existence of “a hard structure adjacent to unprotected shoreline,” Voorhis said.
He noted that Sag Harbor’s wetlands code requires the board “to seriously look at alternatives” and that a report filed to support the Schwartz application was “weak” in dismissing riprap or rocks placed on the shoreline and vegetative planting as elements of a plan to protect the property.
“Some kind of combined solution is needed,” he said, suggesting a “wall” that would be set back on the property to allow for a gentle slope to be created toward the water using rocks, sand and vegetative plantings that would diffuse wave energy. He acknowledged that the plan would require a delay for new permits “but I don’t want a short-term quick solution to get in the way” of a “joint solution” that could include Schwartz’s neighbor, Lee Spiegel, who also attended the Zoom session.
“I don’t understand why it’s a solution to push 3 feet back” into his backyard with a wall, Schwartz said. “It doesn’t make sense to me … Why is rock softer than a vinyl bulkhead?” he asked, adding that “scouring is not what’s happening” and that widespread “erosion in here tore through” the former marsh and into the upland next door.
Jane Costello, whose firm Schwartz has contracted to rebuild and extend the bulkhead, objected that hauling rocks onto the site would do environmental damage of its own.
When Eddy predicted that the board would deny the application if it weren’t modified, Adam Miller, head of Schwartz attorney Haley Willis’s law firm, asked, “Why Mary Ann?”
“Because I think there are better practical alternatives,” she said.
In response, Hamilton also dug in: “We’re not going to change our plan,” he said, for “plantings” and a “24-foot return.” He also said “I’m okay with looking at alternatives” as part of a plan that included the bulkhead work.
After two hours of discussion that left the board and the applicant and his supporters at loggerheads, Eddy asked the board for a motion to adjourn, commenting, “Everybody here wants a sustainable long-term solution. This is a big problem,” she said.
The board tabled the application and adjourned the hearing until its next meeting on February 3 without further discussion after Schwartz told the board that “there has to be some kind of give and take” and that his proposal “meets the code requirements.”
“I truthfully believe if this was your property, you’d be scared” of losing it to erosion this winter. “Every January and February, I lose land,” he said, offering to carry out all the vegetative planting the board requires if it would only allow him to go forward with extending the bulkhead return as soon as possible.