Fortifying the Lighthouse

The rock revetment at the foot of the Montauk Lighthouse was developed the 1970s and 1980s. Michael Heller photo

Shortly after one construction project at the Montauk Lighthouse comes to a close — the renovation of the lighthouse keeper’s quarters — another will get underway, on a much larger scale, visible from the windows of the keeper’s second-story apartment.

The much-anticipated revetment project, intended to bolster the shoreline in front of the lighthouse and protect it from the ravages of beach erosion, is set to start this year, just as the new lighthouse keeper, Joe Gaviola, approaches one year on the job.

The $24 million project has been the source of much debate in Montauk and the larger East Hampton community. It will be funded by a combination of Hurricane Sandy relief funds, as well as money from New York State. The lighthouse’s status as a national historic landmark, which it earned in 2012, helped in securing funds. The project will make it difficult for the many surfers and surf fishermen who visit the point to access the area during the time construction is underway.

Based on plans drawn up by the Army Corps of Engineers and Greg Donohue, director of erosion control for the Montauk Lighthouse, the plan is to cover the existing stone wall with new, giant boulders that will increase the protection from the erosive effects of the waves that have chipped away at the shoreline over the decades and brought the lighthouse perilously closer to the sea.

Donohue said last week that he estimated that work would not begin until some time around the fall of 2019, adding that the project will take roughly two years. He has extensive knowledge about the project, having worked in his current capacity since 1990.

The contract still has yet to go out to bid, but once it does, one of the challenges the company doing the actual work will face is getting the 63,000 tons of stones to the point. Trucking them out to Long Island would cost millions of dollars in tolls, as the stones are brought over the Throgs Neck bridge. There is just 25,000 tons of boulder in the current wall.

Donohue said the logistics of getting the boulders to their new home will be up to whatever contractor is doing the work. But he said he thinks it would be nice to see the stones brought out by a combination of trucking and delivery by barge, which would allow several other entities to be part of the project, from marine companies to trucking companies.

Transportation logistics aside, Donohue said the project is necessary to protect the lighthouse, and added that he believes it is the only truly viable option, even though there are several people, including those associated with the Surfrider Foundation, who have argued that delicately picking up the lighthouse and moving it further back — which has been done with other lighthouses across the country — would be a better option. They fear the revetment project could drastically alter the world famous surf breaks there, and believe moving the lighthouse is a better long-term solution.

Donohue said that the project, if done right and maintained properly, will keep the lighthouse safe for another 100 years. He said the revetment only required $45,000 worth of repair in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, touting that as evidence that the boulders, despite needing maintenance over the years, essentially do their job, thanks in large part to their original design, created by Georgina Reed, an unassuming artist, who figured out the best way to design the terrace in the 1970s and continued to work on the project, alongside Donohue, until she retired in 1986.

Several government entities, as well as the Montauk Historical Society, which owns the lighthouse, have had to work together, and will need to continue to do so, throughout the project. Donohue said that that potentially difficult arrangement has so far proven to be a good one.

“The number one thing that is positive and true is that this project has been an amazing confluence of civilians and government, and the exchange has been incredible,” he said.