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Residents Revive Heated Debate On Best Way To Protect Montauk’s Lighthouse

Originally Posted: July 08, 2009

Aaron Boyd

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As the Montauk Point Lighthouse gets precariously close to the bluff's edge, community groups are at odds over whether the existing stone revetment should be improved or if the town should consider moving the lighthouse entirely. Photo by Aaron Boyd

Montauk - As the incessant force of the Atlantic Ocean continues to pound against Montauk Point, the stone revetment shielding Turtle Hill from further erosion is inadequately preventing the bluff's deterioration. And while the Army Corps of Engineers prepare to reinforce the protective wall, the Montauk Historical Society and the Eastern Long Island chapter of the Surfrider Foundation claim divergent views on the best method of saving the lighthouse from slipping into the sea.

Erosion manager and member of the Montauk Point Lighthouse Committee Greg Donahue pointing out the difference between moving the Montauk Lighthouse and retreats in other locations.

The lighthouse, a Long Island landmark commissioned by President George Washington in 1796, currently sits atop Turtle Hill, though the grassy knoll has been deteriorating gradually over the centuries. The bluff's edge, which originally dropped off 300 feet from the base of the lighthouse, is now less than a stone's throw at 50 feet away from the pounding surf as 213 years of strong tides and violent storms have eroded away at the slope.

The Army Corps has proposed building up the stone revetment that caps the 100-by-800-foot base of the bluff. The project entails extending the toes that support the protective barrier and raising the height of the revetment to prevent waves from crashing over the top of the wall and eroding the cliff from behind. The proposal would be funded by Congress, however according to a New York State law, funding for federal projects cannot be handed over to a private organization to manage, such as the Montauk Historical Society, that owns and maintains stewardship of the lighthouse and the surrounding property. In order to circumvent the law a municipality would have to take deed to the strip of beach, in this case either the Town of East Hampton or Suffolk County, and as the project comes to a head the town is preparing to take ownership of the area.

Concerned Montauk residents attended the Town Board's July 7 work session in Montauk, some to protest further hardening of the shoreline and others to defend the Army Corps' proposal as the only viable means of saving the lighthouse.

Environmental Advisor for the Eastern Long Island chapter of the Surfrider Foundation Thomas Muse asked that the board conduct a study on the feasibility of moving the lighthouse off of Turtle Hill.

Thomas Muse, environmental adviser for the Eastern Long Island Surfriders, presented the town board members with a video depicting other area lighthouses that have been successfully moved back from the shoreline. "We need to be taking action now as to how we want to develop," Muse insisted. "Do we want an armored shore or do we want to systematically, methodically move this building back?"

Historic lighthouses in other locations have been moved successfully, such as the lighthouses in Block Island, Cape Cod, Cape Hatteras and Nantucket, prompting the Surfriders to challenge the assertion that the structure cannot be repositioned. "If we can't do managed retreat at Montauk Point, I don't know where we can do it," Muse maintained.

Members of the Montauk Historical Society, however, claim that the Montauk Lighthouse is in a unique position, making it more difficult to move and providing more incentive to leave it in place. "We have a point that's protected, we are not moving the lighthouse back," member of the Lighthouse Committee Greg Donahue, who manages erosion control for the Historical Society, asserted, stating that due to their efforts the bluff "hasn't lost as much as a wheelbarrow [of sediment] since 1992."

The Montauk Point Lighthouse, which was commissioned by President George Washington, originally sat 300 feet from the sea. Now it is a mere 50 feet from the edge. Efforts to shore up the bluff (pictured here) were conducted by the Army Corps of Engineers shortly after WWII. Photo courtesy of New York State Parks

The Montauk Historical Society took over the daily management of the lighthouse from the U.S. Coast Guard, who had planned to abandon the sandstone structure for a steel replacement, in 1987 and gained full title to the buildings and grounds by 1996, according to assistant grounds manager Brian Pope. In an effort to preserve the lighthouse, a revetment was constructed to slow the erosion, though it has not been able to stop the regression entirely.

Republican nominee for Town Supervisor, Bill Wilkinson, who is also a member of the Montauk Point Lighthouse Board of Trustees, said in a phone interview on July 8 that he is "convinced that that structure has to exist where it is. The hill, as well as the lighthouse structure, has great historical significance." According to the Army Corps, the refurbished revetment would be able to sustain a 76-year storm (a storm the power of which is only seen once every 76 years on average) and should safeguard the lighthouse for another few centuries. "I cede to the experts on these issues," Wilkinson asserted, "The Army Corps is responsible for projects of that like, I believe that they have vetted this."

Donahue compared repositioning the Hatteras and Block Island Lighthouses with the light at Montauk Point. The successful shifts of those structures were simple in comparison, according to Donahue, as both situations only encompassed moving a single building along a relatively flat horizon. Taking the lighthouse, and the six other structures on the property, off of Turtle Hill would require coming down a 40-foot slope, which the Historical Society claims cannot be done without disassembling the buildings. "We just refuse to take this historic building down brick by brick," Donahue asserted.

Members of Surfrider were not assuaged. "The board needs to know, can the lighthouse be moved?" Muse countered, "We cannot ask the owners, they're not qualified, I'm not qualified and neither are you [the town board]." Muse requested that the board consider an engineer study on retreating the lighthouse as an alternative to further hardening the shoreline.

East Hampton Town Supervisor William McGintee stated that it is not the town's position to determine the best method for saving the lighthouse, merely to act as a conduit for the funds.

"The board's role is not to make decisions on the science, we're not engineers. Our role in this would merely be the role of owning the property, acting as the conduit for the funds," Town Supervisor William McGintee clarified, stating that the Army Corps of Engineers has studied the situation and federal funding has already been allocated. "We are not going to be the decision makers on which engineers or science is the good science and which is the bad science."

Montauk resident Chris Coleman challenged the Army Corps' ability to accurately assess the possible effects of their work, citing his estimation of the damage done to Culloden Beach after the Corps extended the jetties at the inlet to Montauk Harbor. "Have you seen what that project has done to the shoreline there? Absolutely crucified it," Coleman asserted. "To say that this group is eligible to tell us what is going to happen at the Point is absurd. You see what they did there," he continued, citing erosion around Turtle Cove that has been attributed to the current revetment at the base. "Now, let's put steroids on it and let the Atlantic Ocean smack up against it. You're making a big mistake for the surfers, the fishermen and everyone involved."

"It's a catch-22 situation," McGintee reasoned, as the Army Corps is "the only show in town when it comes to federal projects." With the Army Corps as the final word, McGintee contended that moving the lighthouse would be the least likely scenario. "The way the Army Corps works, as dictated by Congress, they will take the most cost effective way of getting things done," he explained, "They will not invest $50 million to save $20 million worth of property, it just isn't going to happen."

The more cost effective solution is to extend the existing revetment to cover the area where water is still chipping away at the base. "Is there, or is there not, shore hardening that exists at that location now?" McGintee posed. "We're not hardening a soft area, merely extending it."

"The board's role would simply be to serve as a conduit to get the job done," Montauk resident Jay Levine allowed. However, he added, "You could conceivably be a party to a bad decision. Before you become a conduit, you need to be comforted and you need to comfort the citizens of East Hampton that the full range of alternatives have been explored."

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Guest (JJ) from WSW from Montauk says::
If "not one single wheelbarrow of sediment has been lost from the bluffs," and if "we have a point and it is protected" then why is there any Army Corps plan to do anything. If everything is fine as Donohue states, then just leave it alone. I believe that moving it will save it for future generations. And keeping it in the general area preserves its historic place and context. It's not like they want to move this think to Bridgehampton. Just the other side of the parking lot.
Jan 22, 2015 10:05 am

Guest (Montaukets) from Turtle Cove says::
The word local is used rather loosely these days don't you think? Speaking of locals, I wonder what the real locals would think? I'm sure the Montaukets would say line the cliffs with huge chunks of rock, to protect an old lighthouse. Yea right. Lets protect the lighthouse by tearing it down brick by brick and rebuilding on top of the radar tower plenty of empty buildings for the Historical Society to protect and put to use. ACOE is not only a boondoggle but they are also crooks stealing our tax dollars for failed projects. Think of how many jobs would be created for MTK citizens by rebuilding it elsewhere and let the ACOE clean up the litter they left at the base of Turtle Hill.
Jul 14, 2009 10:31 pm

Guest (jones) from montauk says::
All these lay people who are against it seem to know more than the Army Corps of Engineers. All johnny-come-lately's to Montauk. A bunch of year round tourists saving Montauk from the locals. Typical of the people who move here and now try to educate we locals about all they know and how we should be. PLEASE SAVE THEIR ALMIGHTY SURFBREAK!!!!!!!
Jul 13, 2009 6:00 pm

Guest (Suffolk County) from Suffolk County says::
WRONG! The report does state that moving it is impossible for several reasons...including the fact that NY SHPO will NOT ALLOW the lighthouse to be moved as its designation is tied to its location. End of stroy. Also, how are you going to move a lighthouse that sits on top of a hill off it? Hatteris, which the move FAILED by the way and is now in danger once again, rested on flat level ground. Montauk is on top of a hill. Get your facts RIGHT and read the report.
Jul 13, 2009 6:29 am

Guest (Skip) from Montauk says::
How many pages in their study did the Army Corps dedicate to a detailed inquiry on whether moving the lighthouse is possible? None? The fix is in, and the ACOE is a boondoggle.
Jul 9, 2009 2:55 pm


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