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Jul 28, 2008 9:12 AMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

An outrageous price

Jul 28, 2008 9:12 AM

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is getting ready to dump a million cubic yards of sand this fall to protect the beach house community of West Hampton Dunes. That cost will be absorbed by millions of our tax dollars—and if there’s a big storm in the months ahead, kiss a lot or all of that sand and those tax dollars goodbye.

Why is the Corps of Engineers doing this? In the 1960s and 1970s, the Corps—a combination of soldiers and engineers with the mistaken notion that they can take on the Atlantic Ocean and win—had 15 rock jetties, called groins, constructed (at up to a million dollars a groin) along the shore in Westhampton Beach. This would fortify the beach, said the Corps then.

In fact, what they did was grab sand flowing west in the “littoral drift” along the shore, stopping it from reaching the beaches to the west and naturally building them up.

As a result, people who own beach houses to the west saw them falling into the ocean—and filed a lawsuit. There was a settlement in 1994 under which, at a cost of $80 million, for 30 years the Corps agreed to dump sand in front of the beach houses that had lost significant amounts to erosion.

The government could have bought out the owners of the beach houses—many of which were in shambles—and acquired that land and turned it into a public beach and park (and we repeatedly advocated for that in this space). But, instead, this deal was cut.

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation recently issued a public notice on the new project. The sand to be dumped, it says, will be the third “renourishment”—a fancy word for sand-dumping—under the settlement. The sand is needed “to address the erosion that has taken place since the last renourishment.”

It’s folly on the shore. And what is going to happen not too long from now when the 30-year sand-dumping deal expires? There’s been a big building boom along the stretch of shore impacted by the groins. It’s now called West Hampton Dunes, a village the beach house owners organized in 1993 to give them more clout.

Dr. Orrin Pilkey, a leading expert on shoreline dynamics and professor emeritus at Duke University, in a “Guide for Local Government Officials” that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued in 2002 (now available online) calls the West Hampton Dunes deal “the atrocity of the East Coast.”

He states: “The cost per mile was outrageous and the government is now in the position of promising to keep the beach in place for 30 years.”

Dr. Pilkey says the deal will lead to “huge future storm damages” because there has been the building of “houses on what was water just a few years before” at West Hampton Dunes. “Now, instead of millions of dollars in losses, it will be billions of dollars in losses.”

A Suffolk County resident, Jim Tripp, general counsel of the Environmental Defense Fund, says in the NOAA guide that coastal sand-dumping is “not about protecting the beaches but protecting the property of a few.”

The Corps, meanwhile, is in the process of “reformulating” its Fire Island Inlet to Montauk Point shoreline plan—under which the Westhampton Beach groins were originally built. Will it call for perpetual beach “replenishment,” as indeed West Hampton Dunes will need if it is not to be threatened by erosion from the groins after the terms of the settlement are over?

U.S. Representative Tim Bishop led a tour of federal and local officials and the press of the barrier beach last week. Again there was the old claim that the Corps’ shoreline plan is needed to protect the Long Island mainland. A statement from Mr. Bishop’s office asserted that if the barrier beach “washes over, the storm surge will flood communities” on the island’s South Shore.

The Corps’ plan, it said, “is not only about protecting our beaches, it is about protecting our homes.”

In fact, the barrier beach needs to shift with nature. That flexibility is how it protects the mainland, not by attempts by the Corps of Engineers to try to “fortify” it.

The beach needs to move—as declares the title of one of Dr. Pilkey’s books, “The Beaches Are Moving.” They should not be tailored—at the cost of millions of our tax dollars—to try to protect the private real estate interests of people who built in the teeth of the sea.

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