East Hampton Town residents and business owners filled the Montauk Firehouse meeting room to standing-room-only capacity on Tuesday morning to sound off to the Town Board about how to best address the serious erosion and flooding Hurricane Sandy left in its wake.
The issue boiled down to whether hard structures should be allowed on the beach—a topic that proved to be a sensitive subject among speakers, especially to Steve Kalimnios, an owner of the company that manages the Royal Atlantic Beach Resort Motel in Montauk, who recently had contractors drop cesspool rings in front of his building to prevent further erosion that could have caused it to fall into the ocean.
Meanwhile, environmental advocates who oppose such structures say that the shoreline hardening only leads to more erosion to neighboring properties, and that a solution to the problem must be carefully thought out and not a simple knee-jerk reaction. In Mr. Kalimnios’s case, Jeremy Samuelson, the executive director of the Concerned Citizens of Montauk, has been a critic. He said the business owner had acted illegally in installing the cesspool rings because a town emergency permit didn’t specify such work, and town officials had no knowledge of the move. He also said the town code doesn’t permit hard structures on beaches.
Overall, however, speakers also took a broader perspective on the issue, as the general consensus from both business owners and environmentalists was that the town needs to come up with a long-term plan to address a community facing chronic erosion, rising sea levels and constant storms—before a very serious storm proves to be catastrophic to the region.
Talks, which spanned two and a half hours, focused on solutions like creating an erosion control tax district, drafting a hazard mitigation or post-storm recovery plan and assembling a committee or group to study the coastal erosion issue on the town level.
Mr. Kalimnios came prepared with posters of flooded town streets from the storm. Speaking loudly to the audience, he said he was “tired of getting vilified” for trying to protect his property. He pointed out that he and other businesses have spent enormous amounts of money to replenish beaches.
“We’ve been hemorrhaging money to make sure the beaches in the downtown community are beautiful and pristine so that customers coming to this community can enjoy it,” he said.
Mr. Samuelson began his remarks by pointing out that the audience was dealing with some “emotional issues.” He asked town officials a series of questions what they would do in a 20-percent catastrophic situation versus a 100-percent catastrophe. He said that what’s worse for the town than doing the wrong thing is “doing nothing” to address the problem on a long-term basis.
“If we wait to ask these questions after we find ourselves in a crisis, then quite frankly we will fail in the challenge that was presented to us,” he said.
Earlier, Bob Deluca, the president and CEO for the environmental organization the Group for the East End, also said the town needed a post-storm recovery plan, or a mitigation strategy in place, to give business owners and residents some level of necessary “certainty” on what to expect after a crisis.
Councilwoman Theresa Quigley said the current process is “failing our constituents.” She pointed out that the town code doesn’t contain provisions to protect structures, and instead mandates retreat. “To sit here and say we need a plan, we have a plan,” Ms. Quigley said. “And it doesn’t work,” as many in the audience burst into applause.
East Hampton Town Supervisor Bill Wilkinson and Councilman Peter Van Scoyoc also weighed in. Mr. Van Scoyoc said he’d be interested in exploring a sand control district, in which businesses and surrounding properties are taxed and those funds used to underwrite the replenishing beaches. Mr. Wilkinson said he’s concerned about the “economic ripple” on the businesses, claiming that businesses in downtown Montauk contribute $10 million a year to the town’s taxes.
“People who say let it fall in, I’m against it,” he said.
Others also delivered impassioned arguments. Keith Grimes, a contractor, said a coastal management plan would not work without allowing hardened structures. He pointed to situations like that of the East Deck Resort Motel whose owner, Alice Houseknecht, spoke earlier about severe flooding and damage to her property. Without shoreline hardening, she can stand by and watch “a manageable solution” turn into “a personal disaster,” Mr. Grimes said.