Despite opposition from Southampton Town’s chief environmental analyst, the Town Trustees adopted a plan to manage the Mecox Cut last week, after nearly four years of working with local residents and regulatory agencies to fine-tune its details.
But even as it won unanimous approval, issues remain.
Chief Environmental Analyst Marty Shea — who wrote the original plan that was presented in September 2018 — told the board that he and the town’s Department of Land Management did not support the final plan for a number of reasons. He said the Trustees had stopped working with other town officials as partners, and the plan, as written, doesn’t adequately protect piping plovers and expanded the time frames that the cut can remain open without science to support the decision.
The Trustees are charged with periodically digging a trench — or cut — through a narrow strip of sand that separates the Atlantic Ocean and Mecox Bay when water levels rise, or salinity drops. Once dug, the water bodies mix, raising salinity and dissolved oxygen in the bay, while lowering the water levels.
The Trustees have been digging the trench for hundreds of years — at first using shovels, and today using heavy machinery — without the need for a management plan. As for when the cut is made, the Trustees simply relied on past experience and close observation to decide when to open it, and when to close it again.
But over the past 25 years, the need for a plan grew as beachfront homeowners became worried about erosion, homeowners along the bay experienced flooded basements, and farmers lost crops due to rising saltwater that infiltrated the root systems of crops, among other things. The timing of the decisions increasingly came under scrutiny.
Along with concerns from the surrounding constituents, the Trustees found over time it was becoming more difficult to obtain a permit from the State Department of Environmental Conservation and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, which they must do whenever they intend to open the cut.
Trustee President Ed Warner Jr. said on Monday that the agencies wanted the Trustees to adopt a plan that defined all of the elements that would require a cut opening, along with the steps that need to be taken before digging the trench, and time frames for how long it would be open.
After more than a year since the first draft of the Mecox Plan was presented to the public, and two renditions of the plan coming since, the Trustees adopted their plan on Monday, October 7.
Speaking at the meeting prior to the revised plan’s adoption, Mr. Shea said his biggest objection was that the new plan removes a partnership between the town and the Trustees, rather than working “hand in hand” with each other in the “better interest of the public and protecting the bays.”
Since Mr. Shea introduced his plan last year, the Trustees have worked with two additional copies — one presented in August 2019 by former Trustee attorney Martha Reichert, who has since left, and one presented this month by attorney Joseph Lombardo, who is sitting in as the Trustees’ attorney until the town can appoint another.
Mr. Shea noted that the new plan recommends the opening of the cut when endangered species like the piping plover mate and lay eggs along the beach — and rather than protect the birds to the fullest, it suggests that the Trustees will seek out incidental take permits, which forgive take — the harming or killing of the federally protected birds — instead of imposing fines when it happens.
The incidental take permit is allowed under the Endangered Species Act and can be obtained by non-federal entities that do projects that may result in the death of protected species.
The plan lacks any analysis or State Environmental Quality Review Act information pertaining to incidental take permits, Mr. Shea said.
He also said changing the time frame for how long the cut can remain open — from two weeks to 25 days — was an arbitrary decision from the Trustees and not based on science.
Homeowners along the beach at Flying Point and Scott Cameron have raised concerns in the past of the cut meandering and stripping away sand from the beach when it remained open for longer than two weeks.
James Duryea, an environmental analyst for the Trustees, said the 25-day opening was based on three openings over the past year. During those openings, it took 25 days for the water levels to drop to the appropriate level and for salinity to get back up to a healthy level for the fish to thrive.
Mr. Shea said if the Trustees want to open the cut for longer than two weeks, a State Environmental Quality Review Act, or SEQRA, study would be required to address how it would impact the environment.
A third reason he did not approve of the plan, he said, was because it calls for the dredging of an inlet through the back shoals, or flats, behind the cut. Mr. Shea said the recommendation lacked any analysis of hydrology, bathymetry, or impacts on fish and wildlife in the area.
The timeline for the implementation of the plan was also removed, Mr. Shea said, and moved to the appendix. He said the timeline was important because it identified the responsible agencies, the recommended policies and where the funding would come from.
The funding was a great concern, Mr. Shea said, and the plan takes the town out of any role or partnership when it comes to managing the bay and the inlet.
“The town worked closely with the Trustees to submit [Community Preservation Fund] water quality applications and was successful in getting the necessary funding to cover the costs of the Trustees managing the inlet,” he said. “The expectation it would continue down the track that the Trustees’ management of the inlet could be supported financially by the town. Now that the town is out of the management plant … it’s questionable whether the funding would continue to come from the town.”
Mr. Shea was criticized by members of the community who wanted the Trustees to move forward with the plan, noting that a final plan had languished.
Jim McGregor, who lives on the northern side of Mecox Bay, suggested to the Trustees that they move forward with the plan and adopt it, with the understanding that it was able to be changed because it is a living document.
John Halsey, a local farmer, also told the Trustees it was time to move forward with adopting the plan.
“The Trustees seem to always be getting bullied or threatened over all types of issues, and I think it’s wrong,” Trustee Scott Horowitz said. “The threat of funding over something as important as the Mecox Management Plan, and the pulling of that funding is going to hurt more constituents than it’s going to help.”
Mr. Horowitz suggested the board close the public hearing instead of leaving it open to consider Mr. Shea’s comments. “I think if the Department of Land Management was concerned, they should have come to the table faster,” he added.
Trustees Bill Pell and Ann Welker, however, both said it was important to consider Mr. Shea’s comments, because of the partnership between the Trustees and the town.
“Without the partnership and support of the town going forward, I don’t think we can make it work,” Ms. Welker said. “I think if there is a one-week time frame to see what can be done about these comments, and if there can’t be some agreement … then we go ahead and pass it. But I think we have to address the concerns of the town and the environmental department.”
Ultimately, the Trustees voted unanimously to adopt the plan. If Mr. Shea’s concerns hold water, they will be addressed through amendments, they said.
Now that the plan is adopted, Mr. Warner said the Trustees plan to send it over to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the DEC so those departments can issue 10-year permits that will allow the Trustees to open and close the cut when needed, without permission each time.
He said he does not anticipate any issues getting the permit, which will be beneficial to the Trustees because they will not be forced to open and close the cut on an emergency basis anymore.
“I’m very happy it was adopted,” Mr. Warner said. “It gives us a lot more flexibility to open it quicker or more often than we have in the past.”