On Fortifying Southold, New York: The North Fork Take On Coastal Resilience
Suffolk County, New York -- As South Fork towns rely on coastal erosion taxing districts and put in place stopgap measures to protect the ocean coastline from more frequent storms and rising seas, lawmakers on the North Fork are coming to terms with what can be done to fortify their shorelines.
The North Fork Environmental Council held a panel discussion with Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell, Southold Town Trustee Nick Krupski and Defend H2O founder Kevin McAllister on “Coastal Resilience and Living Shorelines” on June 21 at the Peconic Lane Community Center.
“I’m not sure that resilience exists on the waterfront,” said Mr. Russell when asked to share his views of the topic at hand. “We can maybe reduce or mitigate the impacts, but resilient means to withstand or bend back…. The notion that a magical design is going to come along is untenable, and hasn’t been the case in the experience of the town, or on Long Island.”
“I think the policy of retreat is a good policy,” he added. “Retreat can be done in a gradual fashion.”
Longtime shoreline erosion issues created by jetties and groins, which disturb the natural flow of sand along Long Island’s coastline, have been exacerbated in recent years by serious storms, many of them winter nor’easters that bludgeon the northeast shores particularly hard.
Nowhere in Southold is that felt more severely than in Hashamomuck Cove, where the Army Corps of Engineers has proposed a $14.6 million project that would create a sand berm 25 feet wide along a 8,400-foot length of the coastline.
The problem with that plan, from Southold’s perspective, is that the town would have to pay a percentage of the construction costs, and would also be contractually obligated to pay a portion of the cost to maintain the beach at the grade it will be at after the initial construction.
But Army Corps estimates of maintenance costs are just that — estimates. One only needs to look to the Army Corps’ 2015 sandbagging of the beach in front of Montauk’s oceanfront downtown hotels to find an example of maintenance costs to maintain the dune that have far exceeded initial estimates.
“This is a money pit, folks,” said Mr. Russell, “and if we go into this, we have to go in eyes wide open.”
Mr. McAllister agreed.
“I can tell you with certainty that was not a dune,” he said of the Montauk project. “It’s armoring in the configuration of a dune.”
“I can appreciate the need to armor shoreline that is in imminent danger, but from a 30,000-foot-view, this proliferation of structures, if it continues the trend I’m seeing, there are going to be serious problems,” he added. “We are going to lose recreational beaches and walkable shorelines. The economic implications are real.”
Nick Krupski has been a Southold Town Trustee for four years. The Trustees are charged with protecting the town’s coastal areas, and they issue permits for construction near wetlands and in coastal erosion hazard areas.
“We’re dealing with an amazing amount of applications right now,” said Mr. Krupski, who said the Trustees did site visits for 64 applications in the past month.
“Some are simple. Some are failing bluffs. Some are potential environmental catastrophes as far as beach erosion goes,” said Mr. Krupski. He added that the Trustees often see applications for projects designed to combat erosion that “we know from experience won’t work.”
“A vinyl bulkhead on the Sound is going to fail, and it doesn’t cost much less than steel,” he said. “But any bulkhead on the Sound is going to create a plethora of problems. Rock revetments and plantings are better.”
Mr. Krupski, who formerly worked for Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) of Suffolk County’s Marine Program at Cedar Beach in Southold said the Trustees are working with CCE on a ‘living shoreline’ project with funding from Suffolk County and in-kind work done by town staff.
Living shorelines help to break up wave action before it reaches a property, said Mr. Krupski. While they work best in back bay areas without heavy wave action, different types of living shorelines work better in different environments.
The primary type of living shoreline is made of coconut fiber manufactured ‘logs,’ which are seeded with juvenile ribbed mussels and planted with shoreline grasses. In areas with more wave action, cedar or locust logs are used in place of the coconut fiber. In the areas with the most wave action, he said, rocks along the shoreline can break up the waves, with native vegetation planted behind the rocks.
The Trustees’ ultimate goal, he said, is to have examples of several different designs available for the public to see at CCE’s Marine Station.
“It will be sort of like going to pick out a carpet at a store,” he said. “You’ll be able to meet with a specialist and a Trustee. The Board of Trustees is looking forward to sending applicants down there to see their options. Right now, homeowners don’t want to just plant some plants and hope their property stays there.”
Mr. McAllister said he’s skeptical of living shorelines placed in areas with heavy waves.
“The notion of putting this on the Long Island Sound is nonsensical,” he said, and then pointed out that a living shoreline installed at Indian Island County Park, on the west side of Meetinghouse Creek, has proved difficult.
“There’s 300-plus feet of bulkhead behind it, and all of the benefits are ultimately negated by pinching that shoreline with a wall,” he said. “We need to urge and encourage these applications, but they’re applicable in a lower-energy, back bay environment.”
Rising seas also come with many legal issues regarding public access and private property that haven’t yet been settled by courts.
While everyone has a right to access the beach below the mean high water mark, “no one has ever defined where that line is,” said Mr. Russell. “The town, for a lack of any other standard, generally looks at the wrack line. You have a right to use what is public land.”
Southold Town stopped allowing new bulkheads in creeks years ago for just this reason. Bulkheads, by definition, get their feet wet, said Mr. Krupski, and if they get their feet wet, they are likely below the mean high water mark, where the public has a right to traverse the beach.
“We’re not allowing any new bulkheads, and that is one of the main reasons. It increases habitat fragmentation and erosion,” said Mr. Krupski. “If there’s a pre-existing permitted bulkhead, the owner has a right to replace it, but some are definitely going to be a problem with shoreline access.”
Another problem, said Mr. Russell, is that if the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation approves applications that the Town Trustees later deny, applicants often then sue the town.
Mr. Krupski said that he would like to see the town hire someone to head up addressing these Trustee issues.
“There are certainly more questions than answers right now with this issue,” he said. “The Board of Trustees is so inundated with permit applications. We would like to have the additional time and manpower to tackle this issue. If I permitted in 20 swimming pools last month, that doesn’t really help us with sea level rise.”
— Beth Young