Montauk Point Revamp to Cast Out Surfcasters

Lighthouse sea wall expansion to take two years
Montauk Point's stone seawall will be closed to the public for two years beginning in May for a complete overhaul. Russell Drumm

Access to the easternmost point in New York State, at least close to sea level, will be curtailed for two years beginning in May for a project to shore up the bluff under the Montauk Lighthouse. 

Earlier estimates for the $24 million undertaking were that it would take 18 months to complete.

The work is to involve the complete reconstruction of an 840-foot-long boulder revetment that now wraps around the Point but is considered to be failing. Much of the existing stone would be reused in a design that would extend about 40 feet farther seaward, at a more gentle angle, to better diminish wave impacts.

The public will be prevented from entering the area from Turtle Cove around the Point, all the way to a surfcasting spot known to aficionados as Scott’s. Footpaths will allow surfers, anglers, and others to access the cobble beach to the west and on the north side.

Those with something to say about the project would need to weigh in soon, however; written comments are due at the New York Department of Environmental Conservation office in Stony Brook by Nov. 28, ahead of a fast-track schedule to final approvals.

During a meeting at the Montauk Firehouse on Tuesday evening that was not broadly promoted on the East End, Frank Verga of the United States Army Corps of Engineers said that he expected the required State Conservation Department permit would be issued by Dec. 18 and bidding from contractors sought soon after that. Construction could begin in May.

Montauk, and particularly the area surrounding the Point, is beloved among surfcasters. In online fishing forums, some dare not speak its name, referring to it only as “M” or, in some instances, Mecca.

“There isn’t a day that goes by in fishing season that somebody doesn't call and ask, ‘Hey, what’s going on at the Point?’ ” Harvey Bennett, the owner of the Tackle Shop in Amagansett, said yesterday. 

Anglers from all over the United States and overseas come to target striped bass there. “They come here to fish the Point. That’s it,” Mr. Bennett said. “It is much bigger than people realize.”

In the long run, it was an open question in Mr. Bennett’s mind whether the new and improved revetment would affect the fishing there. “It's a proven fact hat you can catch big bass off the Point in July,” he said. Whether that would change once the work is completed was unknowable, in his opinion.

The portion of the existing revetment, or sea wall, that has been described by the Army Corps of Engineers as inadequate is about two thirds of the total length of the stone fortifications there. Over the years, Greg Donohue and the Montauk Historical Society, which owns the property, have extended the rock bulwark to about 1,300 feet in length, including a stone viewpoint and seating area to the south of the lighthouse, which will remain.

In the Army Corps of Engineers redesign of the critical forward-facing section, new stone blocks of about 30,000 pounds apiece would be placed on top of a layer of smaller material. Surrounding that, a sloping “apron” would extend downward and be partially buried in the seabed.

The work would be conducted in sequence, beginning with a 20-foot-wide flat “bench,” or road-like platform, about 10 feet above sea level, from which heavy equipment would install the stone apron. The bench would remain once construction was done and a second would be built about 10 feet higher than that, giving the revetment a step-like profile to better protect the bluff, Mr. Verga said. Without it, the corps and historical society believe, the lighthouse would eventually tumble into the sea.

For Eugene Alper of East Hampton, one of the few members of the public at Tuesday's meeting, the lower of the stone benches on the new revetment was a safety concern. Because visitors to the Point would be tempted to walk out on it, he suggested, there was an increased risk that someone could be swept off by a wave. “You're putting this much farther out into the ocean,” he said.

“Sensible fishermen are not going to go out there,” Mr. Donohue said.

“I’ve seen out-of-town fishermen there and I saw them get knocked on their asses by a wave,” Mr. Alper answered.

Mr. Verga said that any insurance claims or lawsuit awards would be the responsibility of the Montauk Historical Society.

The contractor would be allowed to work seven days a week, around the clock.

If possible, a 150-ton concrete observation bunker now on the beach in Turtle Cove would be saved and reinstalled elsewhere on the lighthouse property, Mr. Donohue said on Tuesday. “That's the dream, anyway,” he said.

The waters around the Point are popular with surfers, too. The break that, potentially, would be most directly affected would be the one known as Alamo, which is surfable during larger swells. The Army Corps of Engineers has said that its computer model of the project showed that the sea wall would have no impact in what it determined to be the “takeoff zone,” about 450 feet offshore. However, depending on the swell direction, surfers often drop in on a fast, left-hand peak much closer to the shore than that.

The plan has been formally in the works since a conceptual approval in 2005, the Army Corps of Engineers representative, Mr. Verga, said on Tuesday. Public comments were solicited the following year and in 2017.

Partial funding came from a 2013 Congressional appropriation in the wake of Hurricane Sandy; the federal government will pay for 65 percent of the construction, and the state the remainder. The Montauk Historical Society will be responsible for maintenance and replacing the sea wall if it comes to that; its share has been estimated at about $59,000 annually.

The historical society took over the property from the Coast Guard in 1996. It is now a national landmark.

The Army Corps of Engineers considered other options for safeguarding the lighthouse, including moving it back from the edge and dumping sand to the seaward side, but concluded that an expanded stone sea wall was the best choice.

Stone and other construction materials will be trucked to the Point and delivered to the site from both the Turtle Cove and northern access roads. Mr. Verga said that every effort would be made to schedule the deliveries at low-traffic times of day, avoiding holidays and special events.

Though the project is on track for a December final approval, Sue McCormick, the chief of the D.E.C. Coastal Erosion Management Program, said that if her department received enough substantive comments by the Nov. 28 deadline, it could potentially withhold the final sign-off until the concerns had been addressed by the Army Corps of Engineers.

Under that scenario, the December timeline might not work, she said.

Written comments can be mailed to Kevin A. Kispert, NYSDEC, SUNY Stony Brook, 50 Circle Road, Stony Brook, 11790-3409.