Almost 400 years ago, settlers discovered an idyllic peninsula along the coast of the Eastern Seaboard, its countryside cared for by five Native American tribes. They acquired land, built modest homes and continued on in this tradition, sowing the land with crops, culture and, eventually, wealth.
Word had spread about the tranquil white-sand beaches, vast farmland, dreamy wetlands and extraordinary light, attracting the upper echelon of society who created what “The Hamptons” is today — both a geographical area and a state of mind.
For tourists, the towns, villages and hamlets here are a sanctuary, a playground, and an escape from the hustle and bustle of their lives. But for many year-round residents and longtime visitors, that façade is starting to crack.
In recent years, their questions about and demands for the future of the East End have reached a fever pitch — concerns over sea level rise, erosion and global warming dominate pleas to save what is left and reverse the impact of climate change.
They can imagine a not-too-distant future when low-lying Dune Road, from Westhampton to Hampton Bays, is abandoned, left for the wetlands to reclaim it; Gerard Drive in East Hampton becomes permanently inundated with water; and the front line of Montauk is washed away entirely.
This grim outlook is not meant to incite unnecessary panic or alarm, environmental advocates explain. Instead, they want to inspire local municipalities to mobilize for what could be coming — a future many are not prepared to face.
And they are not alone.
“Oh, I think everybody’s behind, honestly,” said East Hampton Town Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc. “We’re all playing catch-up. In terms of Long Island and New York State, I think we’re at the forefront, frankly. But this isn’t going to happen unless everybody starts working now, and part of it is just trying to find ways to lessen impact on the area we live in. We can continue to maintain a high standard of living and be more sustainable. That’s the challenge.”
For most local town and village governments, the conversations have begun, but they face an uphill battle against lack of resources, community pushback, crisis mitigation and a ticking clock.
“Climate change is no longer a problem of the future,” said Alison Branco, coastal director of The Nature Conservancy’s Long Island chapter. “And we need some resources from above — the state or the federal government — to help these local governments get ready. The local governments are the ones on the front lines making those everyday decisions about land use and managing the coastal zone.
“They’re the ones that have to make all those hard decisions,” she continued, “and they need some help to be able to have the right resources to do all this planning everybody wants from them.”
Climate Change Is Here
Kevin McAllister sees it every day — shrinking shorelines, sea level rise, water quality decline and migrating wetlands that masquerade as subtle changes, but actually spell out the writing on the proverbial wall.
The marine biologist would know, having gotten his start as an environmental analyst for Palm Beach County, Florida — now in the early stages of preparing for climate change, such as building on higher ground and sewer improvements — before his 16 years as Peconic Baykeeper on the East End.
“I’ve been speaking to climate change and, particular, sea level rise for a couple years now because I see the urgency,” explained McAllister, now the founder and CEO of Defend H2O, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting Long Island’s various bodies of water. “In a way, I’ve seen the future in Florida and we don’t want to go down certain paths. For certain locations, the notion of just staying put, I believe, is untenable — not without real implications to public access, habitat and water quality.”
According to NASA, global sea levels are rising 3.2 millimeters per year and, specifically for Long Island, about 1 inch every 10 years — a direct result from 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 that can result in stronger and more frequent hurricanes and nor’easters, severe flooding, and accelerated erosion of the beaches, as more sand is swept into the ocean.
“We’re now just grappling with trying to maintain a status quo on the coast,” McAllister said. “I see it as a losing prospect.”
In 2017, Southampton Town spent $1 million to raise the most flood-prone sections of Dune Road in East Quogue and Hampton Bays. Three years earlier, an interim emergency plan landed more than 14,000 geotextile bags along 3,100 feet of dune in Montauk, to the tune of $8.9 million — one of several measures often taken to harden shorelines, in an effort to prevent further beach erosion and protect nearby property owners.
Oceanfront residents in Sagaponack, Bridgehampton and Water Mill agreed to foot most of the $26-million bill to replenish their 6 miles of eroded beachfront in 2013, repaid by homeowners and the town — their portion was a mere $1.5 million — over a 10-year period. As a whole, the project has statistically seen zero loss of the millions of tons of sand pumped ashore, though parts of the restored beaches have fared better in some places than others.
Referring to the mostly successful project as “the one aberration,” McAllister posed. “That beach will disappear, will eventually go away, and are they poised to spend that kind of money again?”
“Let me just put it in perspective,” he continued. “The Army Corps, the federal government, is in high demand up and down the Eastern Seaboard to pump beaches in. I just got back from Florida and I’ve been told that they are basically on an annual cycle now, where they’re pumping sand. It’s a very costly prospect. Do we have the will to be paying $10 million, $15 million a pop every several years to keep sand in locations where we should otherwise be moving out of harm’s way? We’re at a crossroads. We’ve got a choice to make here.”
Even when a storm is out of sight, the East End is seeing flooding on a regular basis, McAllister pointed out. Sunny day flooding, where areas of lower elevation are overwhelmed with water during full and new moons, is prevalent along areas of Dune Road and Gerard Drive, and in even Sag Harbor, specifically the Redwood neighborhood — where a higher water table means lawn chemicals and septic sitting in groundwater.
“We are seeing worse flooding, without a doubt, but I don’t know that they are global warming issues as much as they are overdevelopment issues and overpopulation issues,” Sag Harbor Village Mayor Kathleen Mulcahy said. “But it is all a vicious cycle, so one leads to the other, to the other, to the other.
“We don’t have plans, per se,” she continued. “We’re doing waterfront studies, but to be honest, we’re not spending a tremendous amount of time looking at it from a climate change perspective, or what will happen with flooding, which we probably should be, but we’re not. We don’t have the manpower, the scientific power to deal with that — all really sad answers that are depressing the hell out of me, even as I say it.”
The difficulty lies in preparing for a problem that is not significantly impacting the East End communities yet, Branco explained, at least not to the untrained eye. The long-term view is hard to see, made worse by short election cycles and, in some cases, constituents who deny global warming and will not support funding an effort that may take decades to pay off.
“I hear from a lot of people, ‘Yeah, but by the time all this stuff happens, I’ll be dead.’ It’s a very limited perspective of the world that’s not helping things,” Branco said. “I think a lot of people really underestimated how big a deal this sea level rise thing was going to be, and we didn’t turn our attention to it early enough and start planning early enough. So now we really need to get to work, because it takes a long time to have these difficult conversations.”
The Plan — or Lack Thereof
In order to create a roadmap to address climate change, every municipality needs a blueprint, according to Drawdown East End’s Rob Calvert and Mark Haubner, project leaders of “The Great Grid,” a prioritizing tool of carbon-reducing initiatives for local governments to consider and, ideally, adopt.
But they face a unique challenge in rallying for the cause in the Hamptons.
“On the South Fork, we are so much a second home vacation community, and I think we miss a certain critical mass of social consciousness and social responsibility to care for the place in which you live,” explained Calvert, a Sag Harbor resident, during a conference call with Haubner, who lives in Riverhead. “Because if you don’t really live here, if you come in and go, if we’re such an affluent society that I can spend my way out of whatever need I have, then I don’t think we feel these things as directly as we might otherwise.”
A prime example is the recent $10.7-million re-nourishment project on Dune Road that began in February, Calvert said. He calls it “a prophylactic that’s on our brain, as well as our hearts,” and indicative of the entitlement allowed by wealth.
But Branco, on the other hand, sees the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers effort — which placed about 600,000 cubic yards of sand just west of the Shinnecock Inlet — as a symptom of a much larger issue. The same could be said of the long-awaited Fire Island to Montauk Point, or FIMP, plan for a major beach nourishment.
“A lot of local governments are stuck on this treadmill of just dealing with the emergency situations that are happening because of climate change, like what’s going on at Dune Road,” she said. “All of the energy they have for climate change is dealing with emergencies, and so we’re not always doing the really important step of saying, ‘Yes, we have to fix this problem right now, but then we also have to go back and come up with a plan so that we don’t have to fix it again in three years.’”
Currently, Southampton Town does not have a climate action plan in place, despite its status as a bronze-level Climate Smart Community. While the plan is a voluntary step to achieve this recognition, Calvert and Haubner insist it is critical for establishing a baseline environmental footprint to build for future action.
“We were pretty discouraged because this most significant component of doing a climate action plan has not been undertaken,” Calvert said. “I think they are earnest in what they’re doing, but it’s far more incremental and they do not have a handle on whether they are achieving their goals in any kind of measurable way.”
“We’re so far behind right now, even with getting a benchmark set,” Haubner added. “If you don’t know where you were, you can’t see how far you’ve gotten. We need a benchmark, we need milestones and then you can talk about your achievements — but not until that’s in place.”
Even still, Southampton Town aims to be energy independent by 2025 and carbon neutral by 2040, which Councilman John Bouvier acknowledges as “really ambitious goals,” yet attainable by relying on alternative energy sources, such as wind, solar and tidal power, to eliminate the pollution that accompanies fossil fuel energy.
“There’s only so much that we can do within our own jurisdiction,” he said. “The federal government, us as a nation, has a big responsibility. We are a large contributor of the very thing that we’re all trying to reduce and we’re hamstrung, particularly at the federal level right now.
“The [Environmental Protection Agency] budget was just gutted by 27% and our local federal representation doesn’t seem to see this as an important enough issue to be able to fund and help us inform these kinds of decisions,” he continued. “But we can do a lot of things here. I think reducing our power consumption is by far the greatest reduction in CO2 that we can possibly accomplish, if we can get past the regulatory obstacles between PSEG and LIPA.”
While Southampton Town is doing less planning and more work on the renewable energy front, East Hampton Town is making strides with its Coastal Assessment Resiliency Plan, or CARP, which examines erosion risks, storm vulnerability and expected degree of natural recovery, according to Branco, who sits on its advisory board.
“The fact that some of these short-term fixes have been happening has given people a false sense of security that we can always just count on the Army Corps to come and bring more sand every time,” she said. “But the fact is, that’s happening all up and down the coast and we’re running out of sand of the appropriate size and shape to put on the beaches.”
The Montauk Beach Preservation Committee has hired coastal geologist Aram Terchunian of First Coastal — an environmental consulting firm in Westhampton Beach — to conduct surveys on the economic impact of the beach and explore various scenarios to create an erosion control district funded by taxation, according to Paul Monte, president of the Montauk Chamber of Commerce who also sits on the CARP committee and the Montauk Citizens Advisory Committee.
“Unless we build our beaches to where they need to be — similar to what Southampton is doing over in Shinnecock right now, and similar to what Westhampton has done and Sagaponack has done, and so many other beachfront communities — our entire tourism industry in that downtown area could be impacted if there’s a breach or a flood,” he said. “Our focus needs to be on getting that beach rebuilt and the dune re-secured, and making sure we have the luxury of time to develop any other type of retreat or revamping of the downtown.”
Nationwide, coastal communities are throwing money at climate change remediation. In the Florida Keys, officials are considering a $150 million plan to elevate less than 3 miles of roadway. Half of the county’s 314 total miles will be susceptible to sea level rise in the next 20 years, according to the Tampa Bay Times, and the decision now is to either care for the roads, or accept abandonment.
“There’s going to be this interim period of, ‘We don’t want to let go of it,’” Calvert said, “but the ocean is going to reclaim it, whether we want it or not.”
“We talk about engineers, we talk about LEDs, we talk about energy efficiencies, we just talked about consumption, but nobody wants to talk about human behavior,” Haubner added. “What do we have to do as politicians, what do we have to do as civic organizations, what do we have to do as grassroots organizations, and what do we have to do as people at home? What do we have to change in our own behaviors as either an individual, a family, a group or a municipality? What do we have to do to get this done? And that’s the hardest thing.”
Preparing for the Inevitable
One of the more logical first steps would be to halt development on the waterfront, or buy them out, but realistically, Mulcahy cannot imagine a future when that becomes the case — at least not in Sag Harbor.
“It would be lovely, but I don’t think there’s the stomach for that yet,” she said. “The people who own the waterfront are sitting on a lot of money and they want it to be worth a lot of money. Especially businesses with waterfront property, that’s probably your biggest investment. It’s a little like saying to people, ‘No, you can’t sell your house for millions of dollars.’ It’s what it’s worth and they paid money for it; we can’t take it away from them.”
Environmental advocates disagree, pointing to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection’s Superstorm Sandy Blue Acres Program — a $300 million storm resiliency and flood mitigation effort that bought out approximately 1,000 properties in tidal areas with federal disaster recovery funds, and another 300 properties in other towns that have flooded repeatedly, giving willing sellers the option to sell their homes at pre-storm value.
Once acquired by the state, the existing homes were demolished and the land permanently preserved as open space, accessible to the public for recreation or conservation, and serving as a natural buffer against future storms and floods.
In Southampton Town, the Community Preservation Fund has purchased 5,000 acres of property, a number of which are used for water recharge, according to Bouvier. But unless the parcels are contiguous, it won’t achieve the desired effect, McAllister reported. It’s all, or nothing.
“I’ve certainly been urging the Town Board to be aggressive in acquiring properties, whether there’s homes on them or not, to ultimately revert to a natural area,” he said. “These aren’t mom-and-pop homes in some rural neighborhood on a low, fixed income. Let’s be real. These are vacation homes, but it takes political courage. I’m doing what I can to educate and try to buck up that courage. It is frustrating for me because I see the politician come out rather than the coastal manager. I want them to behave as coastal managers, which they all are, by de facto of their elected role. But they, first and foremost, become the politicians and ‘let’s not rock the boat.’”
McAllister said this political posturing is most apparent with the concept of “strategic coastal retreat,” which Bouvier challenges, offering that there is no perfect solution to the distant threat.
“Nothing really reveals itself, to me, as the right thing to do,” Bouvier said. “I think more of it as a combination of sand replacement as possible, stabilization of beaches as possible, but you’re fighting an impossible set of circumstances over time. Ultimately, Dune Road is a barrier beach and it’s moving. And I think as the beach moves, people are gonna have to move, too.
“That’s the reality of it,” he continued. “We want to keep things the way they are because people have made millions of dollars of investments and infrastructure and homes, but the reality is, over time, that’s not going to work as a long-term solution.”
At the front and center of the “strategic coastal retreat” conversation is Montauk, where many feel that coastal retreat, or at the very least adaptation, is inevitable — “whether we do it, or Mother Nature does it for us,” said Laura Tooman, president of the Concerned Citizens Of Montauk.
“Mother Nature is gonna come and do what she wants, no matter what we engineer and no matter what project we fund — and we can’t get in her way. We’re silly and naïve if we think we can,” Tooman said. “How much more sand are we gonna put on our beaches until they’re washed away? Is it financially feasible to even continue to put all this sand on our beaches when it’s going to be washed away in five, 10 years, anyway?”
Warming oceans and rising sea levels are expected to bring more destructive storms to coastal areas in New York, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, which already reports that average annual precipitation in the Northeast has increased 10 percent since 1895, and rain or snowfall from storms has increased 70 percent since the mid 1900s.
“If something were to happen, let’s say a big nor’easter comes in March, we could have significant damage to not just the front line hotels, but frankly, the ocean could wash over into Fort Pond,” Tooman said. “Montauk could become an island — maybe for a day, two days, three days, a week. But Montauk is really quite vulnerable right now; some of these businesses and homes could be damaged significantly by a small coastal storm. What’s overwhelming is the amount of work that needs to be done to get us to the next step.”
As per a 2018 hamlet study plan, coastal retreat would unfold across three phases. The first would encourage motels and businesses in the most threatened flood zones to move inland through rezoning and a voluntary buy-out program. Part two would transfer development rights from oceanfront hotel properties, incentivizing owners to redevelop elsewhere, and the third would entail further relocation of businesses, literally moving them up the hill along South Essex Street, along with raising Montauk Highway.
But the hamlet study has yet to be adopted, McAllister said, leaving Montauk in a lurch.
“It’s going to be tough love for downtown Montauk. And the town board, they can’t muster that yet,” McAllister said. “The political will is not there. You’re asking elected officials that are on two- and four-year election cycles to be bold and courageous, making decisions that are going to benefit us 20, 30 years out when stuff hits the fan. I don’t see the political courage yet.
“Those property owners, they’re not without influence and they’re pushing back,” he added. “They’re saying, ‘No! We’re not moving. Pump beaches in here. Figure out how to pay for sand. We don’t want to go. It’s too important. It’s our business. It’s our livelihoods, it’s economic sustainability for the Montauk community,’ all the arguments they would pull.”
That is precisely what Monte is hearing from some members of the Montauk Chamber of Commerce, he said, and he supports their concerns. Without any semblance of a coastal retreat plan, the concept is too ethereal for them to grasp — financially, logistically, emotionally, and otherwise.
“If the town board were to be bold enough to make a decision about relocating places and changing zoning or amortizing businesses out over a period of time, if anything like that were to happen, the legal impacts of that would be very far-reaching,” Monte said. “Personal property rights are a very big, and if not the most important, element of this.”
According to the 2019 report “Climate Change in the American Mind,” published by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, about six in 10 Americans say they are at least “somewhat worried” about global warming, and more than one in five are “very worried.”
And, yet, less than half of Americans perceive a social norm among their friends and family that expects them to take action on global warming.
“It’s very natural for people to resist change,” Branco said. “It’s very hard for people to imagine their life continuing to be as great as it is today under totally different circumstances. It’s just not normal for us to be okay with that. The natural reaction is resistance to change. They just want to keep things exactly where they are, exactly how they are, forever. “And the fact is, that’s just not the world we’re living in anymore,” she continued. “The climate is changing. The water is coming up, whether we want it to or not, so our only choice is to get ready.”
Contributed to first place Writer of the Year award, New York Press Association, 2020
Judge’s comments: “This writer handled a diverse set of topics beautifully, mixing an investigative approach with rich storytelling and a human touch to produce in-depth news features with high community impact and interest. The writer understands that all great stories, though built on solid foundational facts and data, are about people’s experiences – their joys and sorrows, their fears and triumphs.”
As published in the Express Magazine