More than 100 oceanfront homeowners in Water Mill, Bridgehampton and Sagaponack on Saturday voted to move forward with plans for Southampton Town to borrow $25 million for the restoration of six miles of severely eroded ocean beach, with the homeowners picking up the lion’s share of the tab.
When the votes were tallied on Saturday evening by Southampton Town Clerk Sundy Schermeyer and Deputy Town Attorney Kathleen Murray, 75 ballots had been cast in favor of the project and 49 were against—a considerably closer split than the landslide of support some proponents of the project had predicted.
The project, which will pump 2.5 million tons of sand from natural supplies on the ocean bottom a mile offshore, will double the width of the beach stretching from Flying Point to the East Hampton Town border. The bulk of the sand will actually be placed beyond the surf line, creating a more gradual slope leading to the visible beach, to dampen the erosive effects of storm waves. The project will not directly rebuild decimated dune systems but engineers have said that having the broad sand beach will help dunes rebuild naturally on their own.
A total of 124 of the 181 residents of two special taxing districts eligible to cast ballots in this week’s referendum did so—68 from the Bridgehampton-Water Mill taxing district, and 56 from the Sagaponack district. Just 29 people voted in person at Town Hall on Saturday—95 absentee ballots were submitted to the clerk’s office prior to the weekend vote. Polls were open only to residents of the two beach erosion control districts specially created, also by referendum, to pay for the beach rebuilding.
Project organizers said this week that they think the higher-than-expected number of “nay” votes appeared to be due largely to a last-minute campaign by some individuals to derail the project, hoping that federal disaster aid in the wake of Hurricane Sandy could instead be employed to fund a similar beach rebuilding project.
“There were one or two homeowners who felt the project made sense but that with all the Sandy aid floating around, the federal government would pay for it,” said Jeff Lignelli, one of the Bridgehampton homeowners who spearheaded the push for the project. “The feds were never going to pay for this. We’re working with Senator [Charles] Schumer and [U.S. Representative] Tim Bishop to make sure we get our fair share if there is money, but this project is the best option that will be available for our area.”
Southampton Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst, who has been a strident supporter of the primarily privately funded project, noted that a federal report on recommended ways to protect eastern Long Island’s beaches, which is expected to be used to plan beach rebuilding after Sandy, recommends very little such work east of Shinnecock Inlet—indicating that federal funding of a beach rebuild would be unlikely.
With Saturday’s approval, the town will now be cleared to bond for the $25 million cost of the project. The bond will be paid back over the next 10 years through a special tax levied on only the oceanfront homeowners who live along the stretch of beach to be rebuilt. The amount of annual tax each property owner will pay varies based on the linear footage of oceanfront and, for residents of Sagaponack only, the property’s assessed value. Some homeowners will pay barely more than $1,000 a year, while others will pay more than $100,000. The largest single bill will go to Sagaponack resident Ira Rennert, who will pay more than $200,000 in special tax each year and more than $2 million over the life of the bond.
The town, which owns five properties within the project’s reach, will contribute $1.5 million toward the overall cost, drawn from reserved funds from parks fees charged to developers.
Of the $25 million total allotted to the project, some $17.5 million is expected to be spent on the actual pumping of sand onto the beach, according to a prospectus of the work. About $4 million will go to the costs of setting up and breaking down the project; $1.2 million for the design and engineering work done by the project consultants, Coastal Science & Engineering of South Carolina and First Coastal Corporation of Westhampton Beach; $1 million for permits and contingencies; and $1.3 million for debt service over the 10-year life of the bonds.
The final cost, estimates of which were increased by about $2.5 million following Sandy, could come in below projections if helped along by good weather or an early project start date. The earlier in the year the project can get under way, the less it will cost, because of the better chance of calm weather in the mid and late summer. As the fall wears on, dredging companies must account for more down time due to rough seas. “It’s 20 percent cheaper if we start on September 1 instead of November 15, and it’s 30 percent cheaper if we start in the summer,” Mr. Lignelli said. “We have to weigh the costs and benefits and try to get our arms around that.”