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Jul 6, 2012 4:57 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

A History Lesson On A Bay Beach In Hampton Bays

Jul 18, 2012 10:17 AM

A stretch of badly eroded Hampton Bays shoreline recently became a classroom for a history lesson of sorts given by one of the Southampton Town Trustees, and also a spotlight on how the priorities and policies of managing coastal properties has evolved over the years.

From the years when Shinnecock Bay was a brackish enclosed embayment, through decades of informal but effective stabilization of the bay’s shoreline through methods now prohibited, to the era of soaring stalwart walls of wood and steel at the foot of multimillion-dollar mansions, the Trustees and representatives of nearby homeowners surveying damage to the protective structures meted out by Hurricane Irene walked through a veritable time warp during a low tide last month.

“In the 1920s, before the ’38 hurricane, the bay wasn’t tidal, and this was a big sailing area—there were four or five hotels, a casino, everyone had docks along the shoreline,” Trustee Ed Warner Jr., whose family has been working the waters of Shinnecock Bay for generations, told the other Trustees and two consultants while strolling along the damp sand of the southern end of Cormorant Point in Hampton Bays. He pointed to the seaweed-shrouded stumps of former dock pilings protruding just a few inches from the bay bottom, where they would be obscured by water except for a few hours each day. “In the old days, the brush jetties were maintained by the locals. They’d tie saplings together in between the pilings, and that kept the beaches somewhat stable for 60 years or so.”

The five Town Trustees, attorney Michael Walsh and coastal engineer Ken Lindhauer were surveying a series of tall wooden bulkheads at the foot of several properties along Cormorant Point. Some of the bulkheads had been undermined by the storm surge and winds of Irene, and several homeowners have applied to the Trustees to either repair, replace or take additional steps to bolster the protection of their properties. The most dramatic failure of the bulkheads came at the foot of one property where the bulkhead bowed and leaned steeply toward the water, yanking out the steel and wooden planks that anchored it to the hillside.

“When the water gets over the top of the wall, all this turns to quicksand, and the deadmen just give out,” Mr. Lindhauer said, pointing and referring to the support planks that had been buried vertically in the hillside but were now lying asunder. “This happened in about two hours during Irene,” Mr. Warner added.

The consultants, who represent seven property owners along the shoreline, are asking that they be allowed to reconstruct some of the bulkheads entirely, burying them much deeper in the ground to give them more support, and bolster others with piles angled shoreward from the water side of the wall, called batter piles, to prevent the walls from falling seaward in case even of overtopping. They have also asked if the Trustees would approve the placement of rock wave breaks along the foot of the bulkheads in some places to absorb the force of waves slamming into the bulkheads, which could also ease the erosion of sand some.

The walk the Trustees took was possible only during the very bottom of a low tide, because the once-thin ribbon of sand that bounds the bay waters has effectively been erased. The bulkheads that line the shoreline have halted the retreat of the bluffs and protected the large houses atop them, but have caused the beaches to erode, because the collapsing bluffs were one source of the sand that formed the beaches as it was carried along the shoreline. One of the bulkheads that is now the de facto shoreline when the tide rises was originally built as an upland retaining wall along the bluff—25 feet from the high tide line at the time.

“You’ve virtually lost all the beach here, and it’s going to keep going—the only time you can walk along the shore here is on the lunar tides,” Mr. Warner said, gesturing to where the bay water lapped against the bulkhead of a neighboring property even at low tide, because it was not one of the exaggerated tides that come with the full and new moon cycles. “The sand in this area is very fine, and there is a very shallow slope to the beach, so any wave action at all just sweeps it right out.”

Before the bulkheads were built, the bluffs along much of Cormorant Point were eroding at a rate of nearly 1 foot per year, Mr. Lindhauer said. With properties now worth millions of dollars and large houses, swimming pools and intricate landscaping impossible to relocate as the bluffs retreated—it was a common practice in decades past—halting that migration was imperative.

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What an interesting article! Thank you Ed and Trustees for this glance into what is happening with our shores and how they came to exist as they do today.

Great article!
By bb (884), Hampton Bays on Jul 11, 12 6:53 AM
1 member liked this comment
If we don't stop the building on the waterfront and dunes we will have no beaches left. The shoreline will rebuild itself if left alone and allowed to do it. Another "perfect" example of trying to contain the water..YOU CAN'T. What more proof is needed???
By sandydog21 (195), Southampton on Jul 11, 12 7:23 AM
4 members liked this comment
Don't mess with Mother Nature...
By Soundview (89), Hampton bays on Jul 12, 12 10:52 AM
1 member liked this comment
Y'all spelled Southampton "Southamtpon"
By SHlocal12 (16), Southampton on Jul 13, 12 12:57 PM
This comment has been removed because it is a duplicate, off-topic or contains inappropriate content.
By Terbear (77), Southampton on Jul 13, 12 7:29 PM
8k run & 3 mile walk, Agawam Park, Southampton Rotary Club fundraiser