Town Working on Management Plan for Opening Mecox Bay Cut to Ocean

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Harry Ludlow addresses the Southampton Town Trustees at a hearing on their draft Mecox Bay management plan. Peter Boody photo

The cellar in Mecox Bay farmer Harry Ludlow’s family homestead flooded once in its first 60 years. Over the next 40, it has flooded 20 times, three of them this year.

“This bay has not drained effectively for a very long time,” Mr. Ludlow told the Southampton Town Trustees on Monday, December 2, when the board held a public hearing on a long-awaited draft management plan for Mecox Bay prepared by the town’s Department of Land Management.

The plan is all about determining when is the right time to open a cut in the barrier beach to let it bay drain into the ocean, a procedure that dates back to Native American times. The board’s goal in drafting the plan is to win long-term permission from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, the Army Corps of Engineers and other agencies to open the cut when conditions require it.

Before the early 1970s, when a flurry of state and federal environmental regulations came into effect, the Trustees — who own and manage the bay — could open the cut whenever farmers complained their fields or cellars were flooding.

It has become far more complicated in recent decades, with the presence of piping plovers and least terns stalling dredge permits and second homeowners with oceanfront properties complaining about erosion on the beach whenever the cut is opened.

When a 10-year state dredging permit expired a few years ago, the Trustees were left to seek emergency permits that came far too slowly for farmers with flooded fields and homeowners with flooded basements and toilets that wouldn’t flush.

With today’s “high water tables,” Jennifer Halsey, proprietor of the Milk Pail in Water Mill, told the Trustees on Monday it takes 14 days for groundwater levels to drop to normal after the bay finally has been allowed to drain. She said her family may be forced to relocate drowning apple trees to higher ground at a cost of $20,000 an acre because of what her father, farmer John Halsey, called an “overfull bay.” He urged the Trustees to stand with the Town Board against the forces of “selfish greed” and people who made “poor location choices” when they built their houses.

Nika Strunk, an attorney representing property owners in the bay area, said her clients were not at odds with “any other stakeholders” in seeking “scientific management of Mecox Bay.” She added there is an impact to ocean beaches whenever the inlet is left open a long time or it migrates east or west of its normal channel.

She called on the board to use sand dredged to create the inlet to shore up the ocean beach in front of private homes and suggested that the proposed plan be made “made clear” in its final draft. The geographic coordinates of a proposed 250-foot-wide dredge channel, she said, should be specified, for example.

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Peter Boody is news editor of The Sag Harbor Express. Previously he was the editor of the Southampton Press for many years and also edited several other papers, including the Shelter Island Reporter and the East Hampton Press, of which he was founding editor. He was a regular correspondent for the New York Times Long Island section and wrote the novel “Thomas Jefferson, Rachel & Me.”