'Optimistic for the Future': East End Leaders Reflect on Future of Fight Against Climate Change - 27 East

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‘Optimistic for the Future’: East End Leaders Reflect on Future of Fight Against Climate Change

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A view of the flooding in Sag Harbor from Spring Street the day after Superstorm Sandy.   JOE LOUCHHEIM

A view of the flooding in Sag Harbor from Spring Street the day after Superstorm Sandy. JOE LOUCHHEIM

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A view of the flooding in Sag Harbor from Spring Street the day after Superstorm Sandy.   JOE LOUCHHEIM

A view of the flooding in Sag Harbor from Spring Street the day after Superstorm Sandy. JOE LOUCHHEIM

Marine Park in East Quogue is flooded during Superstorm Sandy.  DANA SHAW

Marine Park in East Quogue is flooded during Superstorm Sandy. DANA SHAW

A  sailboat lay sunken at the west end of Marine Park in Sag Harbor during hurricane Sandy on Monday, October 29th, 2012.   MICHAEL HELLER

A sailboat lay sunken at the west end of Marine Park in Sag Harbor during hurricane Sandy on Monday, October 29th, 2012. MICHAEL HELLER

The roiling surf at the end of Town Line Road in Sagaponack as a storm approaches.  DANA SHAW

The roiling surf at the end of Town Line Road in Sagaponack as a storm approaches. DANA SHAW

Soundview Drive in Montauk is pummeled by waves during a storm.

Soundview Drive in Montauk is pummeled by waves during a storm.

The storm surge breached and poured onto the roadway at 221 Gerard Drive during Tropical Storm Henri, August 22, 2021.   MICHAEL HELLER

The storm surge breached and poured onto the roadway at 221 Gerard Drive during Tropical Storm Henri, August 22, 2021. MICHAEL HELLER

Flooding in Noyac during a storm.

Flooding in Noyac during a storm.

A portion of Dune Road is closed due to rising water.

A portion of Dune Road is closed due to rising water.

A view down into the roiling surf in Montauk during Sandy.   KYRIL BROMLEY

A view down into the roiling surf in Montauk during Sandy. KYRIL BROMLEY

East Hampton Town Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc

East Hampton Town Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc

Southampton Town Councilman John Bouvier

Southampton Town Councilman John Bouvier

Sag Harbor Mayor Jim Larocca. MICHAEL HELLER

Sag Harbor Mayor Jim Larocca. MICHAEL HELLER

Laura Tooman, executive director of the Concerned Citizens of Montauk. DANA SHAW

Laura Tooman, executive director of the Concerned Citizens of Montauk. DANA SHAW

Kevin McAllister, founder and CEO of Defend H2O

Kevin McAllister, founder and CEO of Defend H2O

Mark Haubner, co-founder of Drawdown East End

Mark Haubner, co-founder of Drawdown East End

Alison Branco, acting director of climate adaptation for The Nature Conservancy New York. COURTESY THE NATURE CONSERVANCY

Alison Branco, acting director of climate adaptation for The Nature Conservancy New York. COURTESY THE NATURE CONSERVANCY

Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman

Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman

authorMichelle Trauring on Dec 21, 2022

One day, a man was walking along the beach when he noticed a boy picking up starfish and tossing them back into the ocean.

“Son,” the man said, “don’t you realize there are miles and miles of beach and thousands of starfish? You can’t make a difference.”

The boy bent down, picked up another starfish and returned it to the surf. He smiled at the man and said, “I made a difference for that one.”

A soft laugh escaped Jim Larocca as he finished paraphrasing the parable, one that serves as a reminder that even the smallest action can help create positive change. But it can prove challenging to keep in mind, explained the Sag Harbor mayor, when contemplating the future of the region, and beyond, in the face of climate change.

“It’s truly difficult, when dealing with a major planetary issue, to identify and actually implement measures at such a modest level to feel like you’re having an impact,” he said. “But some of the best custodians and the best protectors of the waterfront are the people who are directly on it.”

Across the South Fork, that responsibility falls to the nearly 100,000 year-round residents who call this place home — an idyllic peninsula defined by world-class beaches, spectacular homes and a rich history that, today, remains at risk.

In the year since The Express News Group launched “The Rising Tide” series, the state of the region has remained static, if not worsened, experts say. The sea is still rising, the shorelines are still shrinking and, in some areas, water quality is still declining. Sunny days are no stranger to flooding, wetlands continue to migrate, and native species continue to disappear as invasive species move in.

As conversations about climate adaptation and mitigation ramp up in Southampton and East Hampton towns — including pressure to discuss the logistics of strategic coastal retreat in Montauk — there has been one noticeable shift among the general public, according to Alison Branco, the director of climate adaptation for The Nature Conservancy New York. And that is simply a willingness to accept the realities of global warming — and, for some, to act — before it’s too late.

“Fewer and fewer people are telling me, ‘Oh, that’s a problem for the future. I won’t be around anymore by then. I don’t have to worry about that,’” she said. “I’m hearing that less and less from people because I think the impacts of climate change are really showing up in people’s everyday lives more and more.

“That really is the first step: accepting the fact that this is not a problem of the future, it’s already happening,” she continued. “The globe is warming, the water is rising and we need to be figuring out what to do about it now, not in 25 years.”

East Hampton:

Blazing the Path Forward

Peter Van Scoyoc sees the effects of climate change from the moment he steps outside his home in Northwest Woods. His attention turns to his cherry tree, which is currently three quarters in bloom — a beautiful yet eerie sight, considering it shouldn’t start until spring, he said.

And, surrounding it, is a graveyard.

Since 2017, waves of destruction caused by the southern pine beetle forced the East Hampton Town supervisor to down more than 800 trees on his 5-acre property — curtailing infestations that are, in part, due to increasingly mild winters.

“There’s still maybe some disagreement over why the climate is actually changing,” Van Scoyoc said, “but I think most people have come to the conclusion that whatever change there is, is certainly being exacerbated by human impact.”

According to NASA, global sea levels are rising 3.3 millimeters per year, or about 1.3 inches every 10 years — a direct result of melting glaciers and ice sheets, as well as the expansion of seawater as it absorbs more heat trapped in the atmosphere. Warmer air also contains more water vapor, providing extra moisture to storm systems, which can result in stronger and more frequent hurricanes and nor’easters, severe flooding and accelerated erosion of beaches as more sand is swept into the ocean.

While the East End dodged all major storms during this past hurricane season, Laura Tooman, the executive director of the Concerned Citizens of Montauk, cautions against complacency.

“The time to act is now,” she said. “Sea level rise, coastal inundation and impacts from climate change are more real than ever. Taking a proactive approach, rather than a reactive, is what’s going to help save our coastal communities.”

Last September, the East Hampton Town Board adopted the Coastal Assessment Resiliency Plan, or CARP, into its comprehensive plan. Seven years in the making, the tool identifies key coastal risks and examines how the hamlet should plan to guard against and adapt to them in the coming decades.

Among its eight specific recommendations, the town has agreed to, initially, implement regulations and a shoreline setback review, along with a program of beach, dune and bluff restoration, maintenance and enhancement to reduce the rate of shoreline erosion, Tooman said. Last week, the town secured a $350,000 grant through the National Coastal Resilience Fund to help plan and design two living shorelines — a protected and stabilized coastline edge using natural materials such as plants, sand and shellfish reefs — along Fort Pond and Lake Montauk. The strategy has proven successful in coastal communities such as North Topsail Beach, North Carolina, where concrete oyster domes and oyster reefs have reduced erosion and helped protect property from boat wakes, rising sea levels and even sunny day flooding.

The town will also review its building and zoning flood protection codes to establish a design flood elevation that incorporates sea level rise and coastal AE zones, Tooman said.

An AE zone, as defined by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, is an area that has at least a 1 percent annual chance of being flooded but where wave heights are less than 3 feet.

“What changes do we need to make in the code to account for sea level rise, or more flood inundation from more virulent storms?” Van Scoyoc posed, adding, “We may put prohibitions on certain types of development, or have probably much more stringent standards for being in close proximity to the waterfront.”

Back in the 1960s and 1970s, the homes in front of Soundview Drive and Captain Kidds Path had anywhere from 100 to 200 feet of beach in front of them, Van Scoyoc said. Today, that sand is gone. Residential areas near Fort Pond Bay, Lake Montauk and Ditch Plains are also areas of particular concern, he said, where water has breached on both sides of the land bridges during storms.

A startling graphic in the CARP report shows what the region could look like as early as 2070, marked by tidal flood inundation and areas of permanent submergence, including parts of Springs, Montauk and all of Napeague — which would, essentially, create an archipelago off the eastern tip of Long Island.

“Ultimately, Mother Nature is the final arbiter,” Van Scoyoc said. “I feel like we’re playing Russian roulette every year. One category 3 storm would just wreak havoc on us — and so what will we do if that happens? What is the plan that’s in place to allow us to move forward?

“We know that we’re very vulnerable here and if you look at where the help might come from, the federal government has a response. But I can tell you that we’ve only just received some of the reimbursements for [Superstorm] Sandy, which was a decade ago,” he continued. “People need to be aware that we need to have a plan in place to respond if and when this happens — and reduce our risk level.”

The conversation around strategic coastal retreat continues to be a contentious one, particularly in downtown Montauk. Overcoming the sheer logistics and the financial and emotional implications that come from moving away from the shore is the challenge, Branco said, “because these are really hard things we’re asking people to do: change houses, move your business, abandon a road or a stretch of shoreline.”

“These are very difficult conversations, so they’re going to take time,” she added. “We have to start now, so that we can figure out what to do and start working on it and get it done before we get to the point that we’re living on a series of islands.”

The push and pull between property owners and environmental experts, with regulatory boards caught in the middle, is a familiar dynamic on the East End, according to Kevin McAllister, founder and CEO of Defend H2O, a Sag Harbor-based nonprofit dedicated to protecting Long Island’s bodies of water. Residents plead to build higher and closer to the water, or protect their existing waterfront properties by hardening eroding shorelines with seawalls — whether it’s a bulkhead, stone revetment or geotextile bags, which McAllister says worsen erosion on neighboring properties by reflecting the energy from the water on either side.

“At what extent are we going to defend public resources?” he said. “I’m in the arenas all the time, in Town Hall, and these property owners, this is a very entitled community. They come into these meetings armed with lawyers and consultants, they try to argue the science, and they push, and it’s very difficult for a ZBA to say no.”

“I’m trying to defend natural shorelines for ecology and people,” he added. “The afternoon stroll on the sandy beach on Gardiners Bay, well, guess what? If you don’t stop those sea walls, that’s going to be a memory.”

Southampton:

More Work To Be Done

While East Hampton Town has poured much of its resources into climate adaptation, Southampton Town has focused most of its attention on the second arm of combating global warming, which is climate mitigation — with the exception of keeping a close eye on the long-awaited Fire Island to Montauk Point Reformulation Study, or FIMP, helmed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

“Southampton, they’re not as far ahead as East Hampton,” Branco said. “But I think they’re thinking a lot about climate change, worrying a lot about it, trying to make sure they’re holding the Army Corps accountable to follow through on a lot of the promises that they’ve made.”

Now funded by Congress, the project will initially cost the federal government more than $1.5 billion to dump millions of tons of sand along 83 miles of Suffolk County oceanfront. But the timeline “changes all the time,” Branco said, and there is still much work to be done by the towns to secure easements, as well as engineering and architectural reviews by the Army Corps.

And there’s no guarantee that the beach will stay put for long, McAllister said.

“Literally, one storm can wipe out a pumped beach and $50 million is pretty much gone,” he said. “They can’t come back next week and restore it. It could take years of funding cycles and permitting cycles. I call it the ‘house of cards.’ The Army Corps’s ability to pump beaches in every community down the Eastern Seaboard as seas rise and storms get more intense, and erosion is more pronounced, we won’t keep pace.”

There are no easy solutions, Van Scoyoc said, especially while considering the South Fork’s position as one of the highest at-risk areas in terms of loss of tax base due to sea level rise.

“We’re in the top two or three nationwide,” he said. “It’s billions of dollars. Look at the value of oceanfront values in East Hampton and Southampton — and look how close they are to the ocean.”

When it comes to development or rebuilding on the waterfront in both towns, Branco encourages them to follow a rule of medicine — “First, do no harm,” she said — and for Southampton specifically, she suggests that the Town Board revisit its comprehensive plan as a goal for next year.

Within the next couple of months, Southampton Town expects to receive a climate action report from international engineering consulting company Ramboll, which will offer a road map of recommendations and actions for the town to meet its sustainability goals, explained Southampton Town Councilman John Bouvier.

It won’t be delivered in time for the town to reach its ambitious goal of energy independence by 2025, though, according to Supervisor Jay Schneiderman.

“We’re not going to make the 2025 goal,” he said. “We’re going to have to push that back a little bit. But it’s certainly aspirational to say we’re going to try to get there.”

The sister goal of carbon neutrality by 2040 — which is even loftier, Schneiderman said — is largely dependent on New York State’s progress, Bouvier explained.

“We still have to deal with the main source of where power’s generated from,” he said. “We have LIPA and PSEG, and I know they’re working toward similar goals, but it’s important that we separate ourselves as much as possible from fossil fuel production of energy — and there’s different technologies to do that.”

A future solar array at the North Sea landfill, which is expected to break ground this spring, is a step toward that, Bouvier said. The municipally led project will employ community choice aggregation — an opt-out program that allows the town to choose an electricity supplier — and community-distributed generation to operate the solar installation of approximately 4.5 megawatts. Typically, a megawatt of capacity will equate to about the amount of electricity consumed by 400 to 900 houses, according to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Additionally, last December, Southampton Town followed in the footsteps of East Hampton Town and adopted the NYStretch Energy Code — a more stringent energy efficiency code for houses and commercial buildings — in an effort to continue promoting sustainability, environmental protection and energy conservation through legislation. But it has recently bumped up against a competing goal: affordable housing.

“If I’m building a 1,500-square-foot ranch house, I’m trying to get that house built for $300,000 — and it’s impossible to do, because of our own code,” Schneiderman said. “There’s other factors, too, in terms of building materials right now, but I literally was just having a conversation yesterday with a builder and he cited the energy code as the reason why it costs so much to construct a house.

“So what do I do?” he continued. “Do I waive our energy code so that I can build an affordable house? John would probably argue well, those codes make that house less expensive to operate going forward, so there’s cost savings later on to the homeowner. But if they can’t afford to get in the house in the first place …”

Schneiderman trailed off, acknowledging that it is his job to sort out the conflict, as well as keep an eye on new innovations that could offer reasonable solutions. He said that a more holistic, collaborative approach to the region’s overarching climate challenges would be helpful — which, according to Drawdown East End co-founder Mark Haubner, has been a current goal of the grassroots organization that aims to reverse global warming.

It plans to host a mini-summit in January, Haubner said, with a focus on composting not as legislation, but community participation.

“What we’ve been doing for the last year is uniting these five towns of the Peconic bioregion,” he said. “Because we share the watershed, air shed, soil shed — those three things are completely in common. We’re still a farming community. We still share the bays, the sound and the ocean, all five of us.”

“If you’re worried about something, don’t worry too much, because we know what to do,” he added. “So let’s get to work.”

At the end of every year, Branco said she finds herself reflecting on the current state of the climate crisis — and every year, she feels more hopeful that the world has a fighting chance against what’s coming.

“I think people are really starting to recognize the importance of climate change in our lives and starting to take on responsibility for addressing it, instead of just saying, ‘Oh, that’s a problem for the federal government,’ or, ‘That’s a problem for my grandkids to worry about,’” she said. “People are really starting to focus more and recognize that it’s up to us to start addressing this issue and I think that makes me very optimistic for the future.”

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