A $24 Million Rock Wall For Montauk Point

The Army Corps determined several years ago that the existing revetment under the lighthouse was deteriorating. Carissa Katz

A $24 million project to replace a stone seawall protecting the Montauk Point Lighthouse will go forward, according to the office of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.

The governor’s office on Tuesday announced that reconstruction of the roughly 840-foot-long boulder revetment would begin in December. The money is to come from a Hurricane Sandy relief bill approved by Congress in 2013, as well as state funding. The United States Army Corps of Engineers will oversee the project.

Work is expected to be completed by the summer of 2020. According to the Army Corps, the project is necessary to keep the 222-year-old lighthouse and associated structures from toppling into the Atlantic. Critics have said the new, larger seawall could harm sportfishing at the point. Surfers worry that it might diminish the quality of several much-loved breaks nearby.

The easternmost tip of Long Island now is owned by the Montauk Historical Society, which took it over from the U.S. Coast Guard in 1996. Its permission for the project, as well as that of the Town of East Hampton, is necessary.

The federal government and New York State would split the cost of the project, with Washington picking up 65 percent.

In a 2013 assessment, the Army Corps determined that the existing revetment under the lighthouse was deteriorating and did not ensure the long-term protection of the 65-foot-high bluff. Problems included the seawall’s partial collapse and the cracking of poor-quality stones.

The new revetment would be wider and lower, with better-constructed edges allowing for future maintenance, the Army Corps said. A flat promenade, or bench, on the existing wall would be replicated and improved, it said. In the plan, new 15-ton armor stones would be placed on top of the existing ones; these would be covered with one-to-two-ton stones to create a smoother surface than that now at the point.

Native vegetation would be planted on the bluff above, to help prevent erosion.

“We have serious concerns about the environmental impact,” said Andrew Brosnan, the chairman of the eastern Long Island chapter of the Surfrider Foundation and a research vessel captain. 

“None of us want to see anything happen to the lighthouse. It’s an icon,” he said, adding that Surfrider continues to favor moving it back and had commissioned a study some years ago that found it could be done. 

The Army Corps has said that moving the National Historic Landmark lighthouse back from the bluff, as has been done in a few places elsewhere, was not feasible. Among other problems, the topography of the site would require that the lighthouse be either dismantled or laid on its side to be hauled to a new location farther back from the ocean. In 2014, the Army Corps set the cost of moving the lighthouse to a safer location 800 feet back from the brink at $27 million.

Mr. Brosnan was unconvinced. “Just because it’s difficult, it doesn’t mean you should not do it,” he said.

In response to the concerns of surfers about damage to breaks there, the Army Corps said that the reduced slope of the seawall would refract less wave energy than the present one. 

Mr. Brosnan remained skeptical of that claim. As a boat captain, he said that the wave energy that bounced off sea walls was considerable and hard to predict. The Army Corps, he said, had only taken a cursory look at the Montauk Point proposal’s possible effects. He also questioned the corps’ assertion that the current revetment was failing.

“We are experiencing the rising of sea level. We have to make a conscious decision. Twenty-four million is a significant amount of money. Is this the best way to spend it?” Mr. Brosnan asked.

Mr. Brosnan also said he was concerned about the length of the 18-month project and whether it would block public access. Anglers could lose a season or two of striped bass fishing, he said.

Some respondents to a 2016 request for comments on the Montauk Point plan also questioned whether it was an appropriate use of Congress’s $3.4 billion Hurricane Sandy appropriation. According to the Army Corps proposal, resiliency and long-term sustainability of cultural features and economic resources were permitted uses of taxpayers’ money.

Specifically, the expanded seawall would protect the lighthouse against potential future storm damage and reduce the need for ongoing maintenance. The new design, with significantly larger stones, would be capable of resisting what the corps called 73-year hurricanes, for which there is a very low probability of a land strike at Montauk Point in any given year.

If no action is taken, the corps said, the existing bluff would continue to be eroded over time and eventually the lighthouse and other structures there would be lost. “Construction of a well-designed stone revetment is a proven method of eliminating erosion with a long history of success,” it said.

When the placement of the Montauk Lighthouse was determined by Ezra L’Hommedieu, a delegate to the Provincial Congress from Southold, in 1792, the site was 297 feet back from the edge of the bluff. By the time the United States entered World War II, that distance had shrunk by about half. 

Construction on the stone and brick lighthouse tower began in 1795. The cost was $22,500, about $400,000 in today’s dollars. Repairs were made in 1860. 

In a storm that blasted eastern Long Island in September 1869, the tops of three chimneys at the lighthouse keeper’s house blew off, a veranda was carried away, and a barn blew out to sea.

Rocks first were piled on the shore in front of the lighthouse in the 1940s then again about 50 years later.

Today a World War II-era coastal defense lookout tower stands between the lighthouse itself and the edge of the bluff. East Hampton Town recently granted AT&T permission to install cellphone antennas on it.

This article has been updated since it was published with the April 26, 2018, print version.