In Montauk, Adapt? Rethink? Ignore?

Climate change forces big questions in hamlet
Doug Kuntz

The East Hampton Town Board and residents of Montauk took a few tentative steps toward one another on Tuesday, with some residents acknowledging positive recommendations in the ongoing hamlet study that is meant to guide Montauk’s future and the board agreeing that a planned retreat and relocation of oceanfront structures in Montauk’s downtown is an undertaking with such far-reaching implications that further study of the long-range plan is prudent.

Of all the town’s hamlet studies that began in 2015, Montauk’s has drawn the most criticism from its residents. The retreat and relocation of oceanfront motels and other businesses in the face of climate change-induced sea level rise and extreme weather, as recommended by the consultants engaged to conduct the studies, has deadlocked the process. As a solution, one member of the board suggested at the board’s work session at the Montauk Firehouse a “carve-out” of that component of the study so that the rest of it, a vision statement to be incorporated into the town’s comprehensive plan, can move forward. 

The extended debate over the study has at times turned acrimonious: On Tuesday, a member of the town’s planning board who supports the overall study implored residents of Montauk “not to be the Neanderthal, stubborn laggard” while other hamlets move forward with their studies’ adoption. That drew a rebuke from a candidate for town board, who implicitly called him a snob. Both are Montauk residents. 

Lou Cortese, who was speaking for himself, said that all residents love the hamlet regardless of their opinion of the retreat-and-relocate recommendation. “Having said that, I do disagree with a lot of people here today.” Opponents, he said, “feel it’s a government-imposed appropriation of property. It’s not, it’s a voluntary program.” The retreat concept is just that, he said, “not a blueprint.” Worse, opponents “want to turn a blind eye to what is more and more certain to happen,” he said, referring to effects of climate change. “Sand replenishment every year comes at an exorbitantly high cost” that cannot be sustained indefinitely. 

Adoption of the hamlet study’s recommendations is a necessary predicate, Mr. Cortese said, to securing funding for projects enumerated in the hamlet study, most of which he said are acceptable to business owners. 

The town’s other hamlets are moving forward with their studies, he said, “because they understand it’s the intelligent thing to do. Let’s not be the Neanderthal, stubborn laggard while other hamlets move ahead.”

That drew a retort from Bonnie Brady, executive director of the Long Island Commercial Fishing Association and a candidate for town board on the Republican, Independence, and Reform Dem­ocrats tickets. “I used to be a snob, too,” she said. After moving to Montauk from Washington, D.C., and becoming part of the community, “I stopped being a snob and thinking there was only one kind of intelligence.” 

Mr. Cortese asked for an opportunity to respond. “Those hotels are going to get crushed one day,” he said of the downtown’s row of oceanfront establishments, and the town needs to be proactive in planning for that eventuality. 

Ironically, many of the roughly 30 residents who addressed the board had left the meeting before the most substantive discussion took place, an exchange of ideas between the board and its consultant, Lisa Liquori of Fine Arts and Sciences and a former town planning director, in which the board pondered the interdependent nature of Montauk’s environment and its economy. 

But before that happened, most in attendance argued against the “retreat, reformulate, and relocate” recommendation, as expressed in a letter from Paul Monte, president of the Montauk Chamber of Commerce, that was read by Laraine Creegan, the chamber’s executive director. 

While the chamber’s more than 300 members agree and support many of the study’s recommendations including beach replenishment, community wastewater treatment, the creation of affordable year-round and seasonal housing, improved traffic patterns, and public parks, the chamber could not support adoption of a retreat-and-relocate plan in the town’s comprehensive plan, Ms. Creegan read. “If this radical concept . . . is adopted into the plan now, it will be considered gospel for all boards to march to in lockstep toward this goal,” she read. No serious research has been conducted “to understand the impact of this drastic recommendation,” or an exploration of alternatives to protect downtown from sea level rise and storms while maintaining the hamlet’s tourism-driven economy.

“We have been told, ‘Don’t worry, it’s only a vision, the details will follow,’ ” Ms. Creegan continued. “Honestly, whose vision is it? It’s certainly not the vision of the people who will be directly and immediately affected by this debacle if approved.” 

Chris Pfund, whose family came to Montauk around 100 years ago and has owned businesses in the hamlet, agreed with Mr. Monte’s statement. “I totally get that we need to do some planning for the future, we can’t sit idly by,” he said. But “the retreat issue needs to be considered at great length.” A feasibility study must be conducted before adopting a retreat plan, he said, given the effect it would surely have on property owners, particularly hotel owners. He encouraged the adoption of “as much as we can” of the hamlet study’s recommendations, but “we need to slow down, do further study on the retreat.” 

If coastal retreat becomes part of the comprehensive plan, some speakers said, oceanfront properties would be effectively worthless. 

Some speakers favored the “drastic recommendation” that most opposed, however. Kevin McAllister, a marine scientist and founder and president of the advocacy group Defend H2O, told board members that they are “the de facto facilitators” of coastal adaptation and that, contrary to most opinions expressed at the meeting, time is short. “The process needs to be strictly objective,” he said. “Let’s remove emotion. . . . We don’t have the time to forestall the planning process itself.” 

A downtown Montauk erosion control district, a feasibility study for which the town has allocated $200,000, “is inherently tied to the hamlet study,” Mr. McAllister said. Given downtown’s elevation and proximity to both the ocean and Fort Pond, “we’re going to have to make adjustments. I implore the board to move to adoption of the hamlet study.” 

Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc said that the board understood from the comments made “that there could be huge economic impacts from acknowledging that at some point in our future we may not be able to sustain that first row of hotels,” but also “how vitally important the front row of hotels is” to Montauk’s economy. A plan to preserve that economy decades into the future is the challenge, he said. “The question is, are we even going to talk about adopting a vision and acknowledgment of what we face, or ignore and kick the can down the road?”

With Ms. Liquori, the board considered aspects of the hamlet study that might be eliminated. The suggestion of roundabouts on Main Street, Flamingo Avenue, and Second House Road are unpopular, Mr. Van Scoyoc acknowledged, with the exception of the intersection of Flamingo Avenue and West Lake Drive. Developing the low-lying area around the Long Island Rail Road station is probably also ill-advised, he said, though Councilwoman Sylvia Overby said that the idea for an “intermodal transit hub” there was spurred in part by downtown restaurants and other businesses’ complaints that Hampton Jitney buses were occupying many parking spaces downtown. Regardless, there should be a sidewalk from the train station to downtown, “which is very walkable,” the supervisor said. 

“When downtown was laid out, the grid was intended to be one-way streets,” Mr. Van Scoyoc said. “It didn’t develop that way.” One-way traffic, he said, “leaves quite a bit more area for safe pedestrian walking and parking,” but public comment has shown resistance to change. “I’m sensitive to that. . . . At this point, I don’t know that we’ve heard enough support to include that.”

But the retreat-and-relocate plan remains the hamlet study’s most divisive component. Recalling Superstorm Sandy in 2012, Mr. Van Scoyoc said that it would be irresponsible “not to take into account resiliency and sustainability . . . given what Montauk faces in any given year from a catastrophic storm.” 

There are members of the community who cannot envision coastal retreat “without having as devastating an effect as an actual storm,” he said. “At the same time, those properties are very vulnerable now. Can we risk having a downtown and a hamlet of Montauk without those businesses?”