Montauk is Under Attack from Mother Nature

Sandbags are exposed along the beachfront in Montauk following a series of nor'easters earlier this year. Thomas Muse photo

On a warm, spring Saturday a few weeks ago, pedestrians were already plentiful in Montauk, many strolling about the business district with a particular pace that suggested something like, “Don’t bug me — I’m busy relaxing.” The air around the oceanfront hotels’ gravel parking lots was already dusty with the arrival of fresh car traffic. And the downtown shores — what abbreviated coastlines were left after a series of winter nor’easters slammed Montauk late last season — were already dotted with beachgoers soaking up the sun.

Those storms left East Hampton Town on the hook for up to $1 million in sand nourishment costs, needed this year to import more than 37,000 tons of sand back to the beaches to restore one of the basic draws for Montauk’s entire economy. Construction vehicles parked by giant piles of sand on a dead-end street were evidence of the town’s commitment to Montauk as recently as May 5.

“The Town of East Hampton has been very helpful,” said Nutan Saggi, who along with her husband, Vinnie Saggi, owns the beachfront Ocean Surf Resort. “Beachfront property is the engine of most of the tourism. It’s a big attraction.”

But Nutan Saggi worries about the tone of news coverage of the situation, saying that if word that Montauk’s beaches are receding reaches consumers it will spell trouble. Right now, she says, business is very good, and the hamlet remains one of the most beautiful places to visit on the East End.

Beaches and businesses are only part of the debate. The conversation has a goal: how to protect the future of Montauk in the face of major change. And after two years, that conversation — which has combined policy, planning and a passionate desire to keep a community’s spirit intact — has yielded a blueprint for how to accomplish the goal.

Known as the “Montauk Hamlet Report,” it calls for the relocation of coastal structures inland in the face of sea level rise, an environmental phenomenon that goes beyond projections; there’s actual data on it at this point. The report calls for large-scale improvements to the ways wastewater and storm water runoff are treated across Montauk. The report encourages building and updating infrastructure and housing in vicinity of Montauk Harbor to support a continually sustainable commercial fishing industry. It suggests solutions to what residents have said are the lack of viable public transportation and the shortage of housing for year-round and seasonal residents alike, and predicts solving those problems would trickle down to ease another: the crippling summertime traffic congestion.

Main Street in Montauk, photographed on August 20, 2017. Michael Heller photo

From the more than 75-page report on Montauk alone — similar but shorter plans exist for Springs, East Hampton, Wainscott and Amagansett — one might get a sense of this feeling: The more things stay the same, the more they need to change. One line in particular stands out: “The Hamlet Plans are designed to keep things the way they are, only better.”

“If only it could be that simple,” said Paul Monte, president of the Montauk Chamber of Commerce, an alliance of businesses. “You do certainly have a desire to keep some things as close to the current state as they are. Environmentally, you want to protect everything and keep it pristine. Open space, you want to protect what you have, if not acquire more. Quality of life and sense of community you want to keep the same. However, there are things that need to change in order to move forward in today’s world — there’s just no getting around that.”

Existing conditions with hotels along the waterfront in Montauk. Image produced by Dodson and Flinker, L.K. McLean Associates, RKG Associates, Fine Arts and Sciences

The Montauk Hamlet Report used data from the United States Army Corps of Engineers and Federal Emergency Management Agency that showed the downtown Montauk shoreline moved 44 feet inland, or about 3 feet per year, between 2000 and 2012. Hence, the report’s recommendation of coastal retreat, or the idea that hotels, homes and other buildings should be moved off the dunes and farther inland in order to let Mother Nature do her bidding uninterrupted.

“I wish that number was highlighted more,” said Laura Tooman, executive director of Concerned Citizens of Montauk, which advocates for many environmental causes in the hamlet. She called the coastal retreat option “a bold recommendation.” “It’s really scary. If you look at the shoreline now, in two years it’s going to lose 6 feet. Moving forward it might even be worse. And the other thing, too, is that’s the ocean beach — it’s not the bay. With storm surges, you have to be really worried about that coming in from the bay side.”

The hamlet plan process was launched to fill a need: Updating a town-wide comprehensive plan that serves as a real-time guide for creating policy decades into the future. But even in draft form, the Montauk Hamlet Report appears to have revealed some areas where current practices seem to butt up against research, according to Andrew Brosnan, president of the Eastern Long Island chapter of the Surfrider Association.

A rendering of the final part of a three-phase plan with most of the hotels moved back from the ocean. The brown indicates where additional development would be placed. Image produced by Dodson and Flinker, L.K. McLean Associates, RKG Associates, Fine Arts and Sciences

“There’s a whole issue with electrical generation and peak demand requirements around electrical generation. They are installing battery backup systems in Montauk, but they’re installing them at the current substation on Navy Road, which is in a major flood plain. We asked that they relocate them to a more effective spot,” Brosnan explained as an example.

Brosnan, who runs research vessels for the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences at Stony Brook University, called into question the data that the hamlet plan used. He suggested the consultants relied on information that was readily available rather than doing a deep dive into new ground, and as such feels some of their calculations were off. Monte, who spent years working in the hospitality industry, suggested the same, particularly when it came to taking an inventory of housing needs for seasonal employees.

Lisa Liquori, of the consulting firm Fine Arts & Sciences and a former East Hampton Town planner, was a co-author of the five hamlet reports and a sixth study, a separate business plan for the town. She confirmed the reports used previously published data. To gather much of it from scratch would have extended the time frame and town’s expenses, she explained. “That may have left people frustrated,” she said.

However, Ms. Liquori believes that the studies were still able to paint an accurate picture in each hamlet. “It was a little bit of a catch-22, but we believe we got enough of a sense of the urgency,” she said.

The hamlet plans get specific in certain areas. At the Montauk Train Station, for instance, it points out the lack of a designated turnaround lane causes traffic problems, and suggests coordination take place so it can become a “multi-modal transportation hub.” And to ease the pain of coastal retreat, a “transfer of development rights” system has been suggested. Such a system would involve the town offering incentives on land development options farther away from the coast in such a way that would maintain the hotels’ zoning rights for density of use.

But Vinnie Saggi, co-owner of the Ocean Surf Resort, said he doesn’t think coastal retreat, even with such a transfer of development rights program, is a good idea. “It’s not cheap. It’s a loss-loss situation,” he said.

“I think the best thing is to stay here by the ocean, nourish the beach and create a barrier,” he said. “The sandbags were not a permanent solution, but they were helpful. The oceans are rising — everyone knows that. Right now, the town is doing the right things.” Officials are simply dragging their feet, he says, on the second half of the Army Corps beach project — which was supposed to have dredged out the coastline or at least have been under way by now to reestablish a shoreline similar to what existed there decades ago.

Monte says the idea needs more long-term discussion, and said he has asked for, but has yet to receive, data on a community that has successfully implemented such an approach. “It has a lot of moving parts that will affect people’s lives and financial situations,” he said, “and you don’t want to wind up with drastic reductions in the number of hotel rooms and impact to our tourist economy. That would be tragic for Montauk.”

But more long-term discussion, on every aspect of the plan from coastal retreat to wastewater management to how to redevelop the area around the Montauk Train Station for ideal transportation harmony, is exactly what’s coming down the pike.

“The [studies] were all prepared so that each one could get its own hearing, its own review and have really its own timeline and its own implementation,” Liquori said.

Meaning the studies are in the town’s hands now.

“We need to do more work,” says East Hampton Town councilwoman Sylvia Overby, who cited additional hamlet-specific public sessions to address the detailed suggestions in each plan and the possible hiring of additional town personnel to direct the process. “There’s a lot more detail that has to be added” that “has to come directly from the people who live here. … The way the town board was leaning was that every single hamlet would have a separate overlay so that it’s not one-size-fits-all.”

She said she knows it’s going to be a balancing act, possibly more so in Montauk than in some of East Hampton’s other hamlets.

“I think that Montauk is going to be a challenge,” Ms. Overby said. “We’ve seen it go off the rails at one point not too many years ago. There’s still some of that backlash that we continue to hear. We’re sensitive to making hopefully right decisions that mean Montauk is and always will be a place that exudes vibrancy.”