Could East Hampton Become a String of Islands?

Pictured Above: This long-abandoned house in Lazy Point in East Hampton has proved to be the emblem of the town’s fight against rising seas, which is expected to only intensify in the coming years.

The “permanent submergence of low lying areas” could lead “East Hampton to physically transform into a series of islands,” as soon as 50 years from now, according to East Hampton’s draft Coastal Assessment Resiliency Plan (CARP), which was released to the public in late April and is expected to be adopted this June.

The plan calls for “mitigation and adaptation to delay and prepare for this,” said town Environmental Analyst Samantha Klein, who gave a presentation on the subject at the East Hampton Town Board’s May 17 work session, along with Laura Tooman, who serves as both the co-chair of the town’s CARP committee and as President of the Concerned Citizens of Montauk.

Key to the CARP effort is engaging the public in understanding the real impact coastal inundation and sea level rise will have on the East Hampton community. 

An earlier 2018 proposal for a three-phase plan to move Montauk away from the water’s edge met with some public resistance to the relatively new idea of “coastal retreat” — moving infrastructure and businesses away from the coastline.

“We want this to be the plan that the community wants,” said Ms. Tooman at the May 17 work session. “It is important to start now. The threats are real… The devil is in the details, but it’s important we start now planning and working together…. We need to continue to educate and involve the public in the process.”

Ms. Tooman said making East Hampton resilient against the sea would include helping the town rebound quickly after a storm, maintain a sustainable and economically viable community that protects critical business and infrastructure in harm’s way, maintains essential functions, prevents or minimizes storm-related damages, ensures public safety and protects natural and recreational resources.

The CARP document, prepared by consultants GZA Geoenvironmental, Inc., Dodson & Flinker, and Coastal Ocean Analytics, along with the town’s Coastal Assessment & Resiliency Plan Committee, was funded in late 2014 through a $250,000 grant from New York State.

The 80-page executive summary of the document, available online at www.ehamptonny.gov/574/Coastal-Assessment-Resiliency-Plan, focuses on 11 areas of greatest coastal risk throughout town. 

Among the most at-risk are narrow areas of land between two water bodies, of which there are many in East Hampton, including the Napeague stretch, downtown Montauk between the Atlantic Ocean and Fort Pond Bay, Ditch Plains and Gerard Drive between Accabonac Harbor and Gardiners Bay in Springs.

“This look at the future can be overwhelming, but we’re proactive and planning and action-oriented. Our team is eager to begin work,” said Ms. Klein, adding that there will be grant funding available for many action items in the plan once it is adopted.

“Different agencies have different goals, but we want to submit the most competitive projects we can,” she said. “We want to make our applications based on the community’s priorities.

Those goals can include enhanced equipment and infrastructure for emergency response, living shorelines to absorb the energy of the sea, marsh and dune grass plantings, oyster reefs,  infrastructure improvements to ensure utility service before, during and after storms, and changes to building codes to reflect the greater risk of rising seas, as well as the creation of new code tools like “managed retreat overlay zones,” ares of low topography where property owners could participate in voluntary incentive buyout programs, transfers of development rights or tax credits for abandoning their vulnerable property.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which has just begun to fund its long-awaited Fire Island To Montauk Point shoreline protection program, is expected to be placing sand on Montauk’s beaches in the near future.

“FIMP will be temporarily restoring Montauk beaches — that will buy us some of the time that we need” to implement this plan, said Ms. Klein.

“Most coastal communities are just continuing to dump sand on the beach,” said Ms. Tooman. “I think we’re really setting precedent here.”

“I was a freshman councilman when Superstorm Sandy struck, and I’ve really seen the awareness of what we’re facing change significantly in the past 10 years, along with sea level projections,” said Town Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc. 

“We’re still early in the journey,” he said, adding that he’s heartened to see the town’s Chambers of Commerce, along with Citizens Advisory Committees and environmental organizations, get involved with the effort. “To see the level of engagement increase over time is very encouraging.”

“I think the community is ready to sit down and talk about this,” agreed Councilwoman Kathee Burke-Gonzalez.

Beth Young

Beth Young built her first boat out of driftwood tied together with phragmites behind her family’s apartment above the old Mill Creek Inn in Southold. Nowadays, she spends most of her time kayaking, learning about shellfish, writing newspaper stories, trying to sail a Sunfish, and watching the way the bay changes from day to day. You can send her a message at beth@peconicbathtub.com

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