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As Lighthouse Edges Closer To The Sea, Jurisdiction Battle Ensues To Save Her

Originally Posted: September 04, 2008

Aaron Boyd

In order to prevent further erosion, the Army Corps of Engineers has proposed installing a targeted 840-foot stone revetment to protect critical areas from withering away. Photo by Christine Bellini

Montauk - The lighthouse commissioned by George Washington that stands at the tip of Montauk Point is in danger of falling into the ocean, according to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and the Montauk Point Historical Society. In order to prevent such a tragedy, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has proposed rebuilding a protective revetment before the eroding bluff crumbles beneath it. Funding the project has become complicated, however, as the state cannot fund projects on land owned by non-profit organizations, such as the Montauk Historical Society.
The state has the option of changing the law to allow for intervention or conscripting either East Hampton Town or Suffolk County to take ownership of the land and act as the monetary intermediary. The local governing agency would hold title to the 800-by-100-foot coastal parcel, providing a surrogate through which the state can siphon project funding, though no financial support would be expected to come from municipal coffers.

The lighthouse, constructed in 1796, originally sat 300 feet from the easternmost point of
Long Island. Photo by Aaron Boyd

The lighthouse, constructed in 1796, originally sat 300 feet from the easternmost point of Long Island. Currently, due to a number of recent powerful storms and consistent long-term erosion over the past two hundred plus years, the bluff has shrunken to a 50 foot span, according to Army Corps Project Manager Frank Verga. Crashing waves rise over the top of the current revetment, chipping away at the bluff from behind the protective barrier.

In order to prevent further erosion, the Army Corps of Engineers has proposed installing a targeted 840-foot stone revetment to protect critical areas from withering away.

The other option, according to East Hampton Town Supervisor William McGintee, would be to move the lighthouse itself. That would require dismantling the complex and rebuilding it in another location, a prospect no one on the board or historical society seems to support.

Passing The Buck
The East Hampton Town Board is divided over whether the town should volunteer their services as a financial middleman.

"There are three ways this moves forward," McGintee explained during the Sept. 2 town work session in Montauk - the legislative agenda allows the state to give money to non-profits, the town manages the parcel or the county takes ownership. "From my perspective, I would rather be that entity than a larger form of government because we do a better job of working at the local level," McGintee asserted.

Councilman Pete Hammerle vehemently disagreed. "There is no control here," Hammerle contended, clarifying his position, "only liability." Hammerle also voiced concern over possible unintended consequences of building up a large revetment. The wall may affect surf conditions in the area, as asserted by Surfriders Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to the protection of surfing conditions and beaches, and Hammerle worried that nearby Turtle Cove may disappear in 10 years as a result.

"It doesn't matter who the funding goes through," McGintee contended, "The environmental impact will be the same."

Councilman Brad Loewen was sympathetic to Hammerle's concerns. "What if we have a 500-year storm 10 years from now?" Loewen asked, "Is the town going to be responsible for fixing [the revetment] and rebuilding it?" Loewen would like to view more information on the legal details of the town's responsibilities as holders of the title. "If we can handle those [responsibilities] I'd prefer the town had the deed than the county," he explained.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy had no comment on the proposal, as his office had not received any details about the project, or any request to take title to the land.

"I haven't seen the county interested in getting involved with this," State Assemblyman Fred Thiele asserted.

"There's a lot of controversy around this," Hammerle declared, "I'd rather see the legislation go through than have us deal with this."

Erosion along the south side of the point along the cliffs expose the wrath of relentless crashing surf. Photo by Christine Bellini

No Exceptions
"We would prefer the legislation be changed," explained Greg Donahue, director of erosion control for the Montauk Point Lighthouse Committee, "it's archaic." Ideally, Donahue would like to see the swath of coastline stay with the historical society. "They have been the true protector of the lighthouse for 38 years," he claimed.

Changing the legislation would be a difficult process, according to Thiele, who claimed to have fought diligently to get an exception for Montauk Point out of committee. New York State established a law in the 1940s that restricts the state from funding erosion control on privately owned property. "I wasn't there in the 1940s," Thiele chided, explaining the legislation, "but they didn't want state dollars given to private lands."

While the lighthouse is owned and managed by a private entity, it is also an important structure to the State and country at large. The second U.S. Congress, who approved the commission of the lighthouse, "knew that if they didn't get ships to port the nation wouldn't grow," Donahue explained.

"There is a public interest, this is a special case," Thiele agreed, however, citing his 25 years of government service, he held onto doubts that the exception would make it through the state legislature. "We're looking to make a exclusion to a law that's been on the books for 60 years," Thiele contended, "The most expeditious way for this to move forward is through the town."

"I would rather see the town working with the historical society than have it move to the county level," McGintee insisted. The project proposal is still embedded in the permitting process for now, according to Army Corps Engineer Verga, as it is vetted by the DEC and state legislature. Construction is slated to begin by early 2010.

"We'll do whatever we have to do to save this lighthouse," Loewen asserted.

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