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Apr 16, 2013 5:49 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press

Hardened Beach Protection Options Pose Some Difficult Questions

Apr 16, 2013 6:15 PM

The erosion caused by Hurricane Sandy and an active winter storm season has rekindled a broad debate across the South Fork about how best to protect both structures along the coastline, and the soft sand beaches that fuel the local resort economy.

For property owners in places where Sandy’s surge erased the barrier of beach and dunes, and the parade of winter storms repeatedly threatened homes and property with damage or destruction, the idea of erecting “hard” protective structures of wood, steel or stone to hold back the waves has been taken up with a vigor not seen since the mid-1990s. This time around, however, there are the added wrinkles of new understanding about global warming, billions in Sandy recovery dollars, and the relatively new consideration of “beach nourishment”—the massive mechanical rebuilding of beaches.

The discussion has been especially urgent in Montauk, where the business district flooded during Sandy and a number of large hotels had their very foundations hammered by waves, and in Southampton Village, where several large estate owners have skirted long-understood prohibitions and installed steel and stone walls at the foot of their properties in the months following the storm.

In both places, public officials have recently voiced support for allowing hardened protections, calling for exceptions to decades of public policy.

In Southampton Village, Mayor Mark Epley has said that in places where there are gaps between seawalls built 50 years ago or more, property owners should be allowed to put in hardened protections to hold off the ill effects of neighbors’ walls.

“You’re never going to remove the bulkheads in that area, so let’s let the people that are the weak point install something,” Mr. Epley said recently.

At the same time, he acknowledged that in the parts of the village where there are no seawalls in place already, the beach is much wider, and that expanding their use to protect properties in general should be restrained.

Last week, East Hampton Town Supervisor Bill Wilkinson pressed members of the Town Board to throw their influence, in principle, behind allowing the use of stone walls to protect the foundations of the oceanfront hotels as part of a hoped-for U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project to rebuild the beaches in the low-lying hamlet.

“I’ve made no bones about it: I’ve been very supportive of protecting those motels that contribute so much to the economic stability of the hamlet of Montauk,” Mr. Wilkinson said. “It’s down to protect or retreat. I’m in favor of protecting.”

To protect or to retreat is the question at the very heart of the shore-hardening debate.

Seawalls—be they actual walls of steel or wood, or sloping hills of giant boulders—have been something of a conundrum for beachfront communities nationwide for decades. Many were built along the oceanfront of both coasts in the early two-thirds of the 20th century as development first moved to the shoreline and storm damage became an issue. Seawalls, for the most part, held back the waves when the storms hit and saved structures from destruction.

But it was soon discovered that they also greatly accelerated the erosion of sand from the beaches between them and the ocean. In some places where walls were built along the oceanfront, parts of New Jersey in particular, beaches vanished within years.

The physics are simple: Waves crashing into the walls during storms deflect back, taking with them far more sand than they would if they could run up a natural beach slope and then retreat. In places where walls abruptly end, the wave energy wraps around the corners, scouring out deep gouges in the sand and dunes at either terminus.

The nature of Long Island’s orientation, with prevailing southerly winds pushing gentle waves and sand ashore, typically repairs such scars given a period of calm, as is generally seen most summers. In places where other factors do not interrupt the natural process, a stretch of years without exceptionally severe or frequent storms can obscure seawalls behind hundreds of feet of sand—as was seen, generally, between 1997 and 2010.

But over longer periods of time—in some cases, centuries—seawalls halt the natural process that creates beaches and dunes.

Experts say Long Island is slowly being whittled away, by currents sweeping down the shoreline and rising sea levels, and if the beach and dune system cannot move landward, as it has steadily since the last Ice Age, the beaches will soon vanish.

“The downside, there is no argument: A seawall will eventually result in the destruction of the beach,” said Dr. Robert Young, a coastal geologist who has been hired by the Southampton Town Trustees to help them formulate an official policy regarding hardened structures on the beachfront. “North Carolina and South Carolina banned them altogether 25 years ago. The other side of that, of course, [is that] in North Carolina a lot of houses have fallen in [the water].”

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More fine reporting from Mr. Wright and the Press.

Replenishing sand for all of Long Island until the end of time is going to be very expensive.
By PBR (4895), Southampton on Apr 19, 13 8:01 AM
The earlier article is here:


By PBR (4895), Southampton on Apr 19, 13 10:32 AM
Hedge funds against Mother Nature. Guess who's gonna win ?
By lazymedic (100), southampton on Apr 19, 13 10:45 AM
Hardened structures will not protect the beaches. They will only make it worse. What are they planning to do?? Bulkhead the entire south shore of LI from Montauk to Manhattan??
By sandydog21 (194), Southampton on Apr 19, 13 1:06 PM
That's the only logical plan, although most are not aware of the choice their "representatives" are on the verge of making.

Don't worry the Army Corps of Engineers will work it out, according to EH Town officials!
By PBR (4895), Southampton on Apr 19, 13 1:12 PM
It's all about the money.. rebuilding dunes should be natural helped by snow fence and hard structures banned period
By blackduck1 (20), southampton on Apr 19, 13 10:07 PM
2 members liked this comment
Beaches will replenish themselves if they are allowed to. Barrier beaches are just that, when we build on them we destroy their natural ability to sustain themselves. Sea levels are rising...NO amount of hardened structures will stop the ocean, it will only hastened the destruction. Leave them alone to do what they naturally do!!!!
By sandydog21 (194), Southampton on Apr 20, 13 7:48 AM
3 members liked this comment
Sandydog and blackduck have it right, while Mayor Epley and Supervisor Wilkinson have it wrong. Hardened structures are poison to the beach.

What happened recently in Southampton Village is a travesty. There, beachfront tycoons and their lawyers took cynical advantage of emergency measures, that were meant to help devastated Sandy victims in western Long Island, to sneak in seawalls which they couldn't have built otherwise. Once again, the Town Trustees are taking the right and courageous ...more
By Turkey Bridge (1908), Quiogue on Apr 23, 13 11:16 PM
Well said TB -- a travesty indeed.

Are the SHT Trustees and DEC simply rolling over here about the new steel bulkhead at Little Plains Road, or are they preparing legal action against the homeowners, and perhaps the Village Building Department?

For some reason the Press has not put links above to Mr. Wright's many fine articles on this subject.
By PBR (4895), Southampton on Apr 24, 13 4:21 AM
Look at the height of the new steel bulkhead!

"Big Money's Monster of Little Plains?"

The photo in the article below is accredited to Mr. Havemeyer, Town Trustee. Since that photo was taken, massive amounts of sand and snow fencing have been brought in to hide The Monster, which now spills well onto the beach.

Read the quotes from Mr. Havemeyer. Are the Trustees going to follow up on this?

Go down to Little Plains and take a look.

By PBR (4895), Southampton on Apr 24, 13 4:30 AM
See these other fine articles, which are not linked above. Read 'em and weep.


By PBR (4895), Southampton on Apr 24, 13 4:33 AM
New article on the front page of the Press about jetties etc..
By PBR (4895), Southampton on Apr 25, 13 12:32 PM
"Fallow or follow?"

More Big Money issues raised about the use of CPF monies:

By PBR (4895), Southampton on Apr 25, 13 12:37 PM
"Nihil est illicita, si dives es" ["Nothing is illegal if you are rich"]

By highhatsize (3890), East Quogue on Apr 25, 13 3:00 PM
1 member liked this comment
The new article from Thursday is now available here.

Great reporting by Mr. Wright.

By PBR (4895), Southampton on Apr 29, 13 3:18 PM