A Mixed Bag Reaction to Montauk Hamlet Study

A vision of Montauk being reviewed by the Town of East Hampton as part of its hamlet study. Courtesy of Dodson and Flinker

Residents and representatives of environmental groups applauded efforts by the East Hampton Town Board to address the creeping reality of climate change and sea level rise in its new hamlet study for downtown Montauk during a public hearing last Thursday in Town Hall.

Other speakers remained critical of shoreline hardening in the hamlet, which they say has exacerbated coastal erosion, and called on the town to give residents — and all stakeholders — more time to discuss a plan that includes, in part, an ambitious, albeit conceptual, plan that includes eventual coastal retreat for businesses and condos perched on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean.

The hamlet study for Montauk is one of five the town has developed with consultants for commercial areas throughout its hamlets. Thursday’s public hearing on the Montauk study was the last public hearing scheduled to discuss the individual plans. If adopted, piecemeal or as a whole, the hamlet plans would be folded into the town’s Comprehensive Plan and used as roadmaps for future planning and zoning regulations.

Among a number of measures, including encouraging affordable housing in second story apartments, the study for Montauk recommends pushing businesses over several phases away from the beachfront and relocating them to higher ground closer to Montauk Highway.

Laura Tooman, the president of the Concerned Citizens of Montauk, said it was “a plan that does not ignore the future, a plan that allows Montauk to flourish environmentally and economically in light of some foreseen changes.”

She also recognized the hamlet study was a “vision” for the future. “This is not a retreat plan,” said Ms. Tooman. “The retreat plan is what is next for Montauk and it will take a lot of time.”

“Your plan maintains the businesses and motels that drive our economy, while allowing a dynamic shoreline the change it needs,” said Allison Branco, the director of coastal programs for the Nature Conservancy on Long Island.

“We have some concerns about how the hamlet study is handling the public beach in Montauk,” said attorney Carl Irace, representing the nonprofit Defend H2O. “The public has heard a lot of mention about nourishment plans that would take sand from offshore sites for the downtown beach. The public has also heard a lot about an erosion control tax district. We would like to disavow beach nourishment as a solution — and funding nourishment through an erosion control district is an enabler of that unsuitable position.”

Resident Allen Axelowitz, who represented a number of co-op owners on the beachfront, said the group had recently formed a beach preservation committee and wanted to get involved. He urged the board not to do anything that would take away their properties. “My kids grew up there summer after summer and I want my grandchildren to grow up there,” he said. “To take it away from us is unacceptable.”

Chris Carillo, representing roughly 90 lots in Surfside Association, a group formed in the 1970s, called on the town board to address erosion at the town beach, which many residents say was exacerbated by the installation of geobags filled with sand by the Army Corp of Engineers. He said the association’s deeded beach access is gone along with a large swath of beach. A boardwalk that residents once used to access the beach has been damaged by the rising tides.

“We need to get that beach back as soon as we can,” he said.

Captain Andrew Brosnan, the chairman of the Eastern Long Island Chapter of Surfrider Foundation, agreed with Mr. Carillo and resident Thomas Muse that the Army Corp project — and shoreline hardening in general — had made beach erosion worse in Montauk.

“The idea of creating a special taxing district to address this, I think, has some merit, although unless it is limited strictly to those properties adjacent to the project I think it unfairly burdens property owners in downtown Montauk and areas discussed previously,” he said.

That said, Mr. Brosnan agreed with a step by step retreat from rising sea levels.

“We talk about sea level rise and we can argue about what is causing sea level rise but the fact of the matter is sea level is rising. The seas are warming,” he said.  “That is causing greater storms, greater erosion and problems we simply did not plan for in the past. So, we are in a position where we need to not simply react appropriately, but quickly or we will have greater problems than we already do tonight.”