Feds: Fire Island dune work delayed until fall

Debris from one demolished home is seen in Debris from one demolished home is seen in front of a second badly damaged home, center, that will be soon torn down by the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers in the Ocean Bay Park community on Fire Island on March 5, 2013. Photo Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

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The rebuilding of Fire Island's Sandy-leveled dunes isn't expected to start until September, a delay that means the barrier island and vulnerable South Shore will face a second hurricane season without crucial defenses.

The revised timeline, a blow to advocates pushing for an earlier start, is included in a draft environmental assessment released this week by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Under the plan, owners of 41 oceanfront properties that stand in the way of the planned 15-foot-high dune line will be bought at a total cost of $46 million, according to a preliminary estimate. But the owners will receive their homes' current value -- not the pre-superstorm Sandy market price as initially promised.

The plan calls for spending nearly $162 million in an emergency effort to rebuild Fire Island's natural defenses with 7 million cubic feet of sand. Completion is now slated for August 2015 -- 34 months after Sandy struck.

Dredging was to begin this winter, but delays mounted due to complicated approvals needed from the state Department of Environmental Conservation and the U.S. Department of Interior.

New York and the Army Corps also must sign off on the project. And the state and Suffolk, which will acquire the necessary land, also must reach an agreement.

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Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said he will keep pressing all the players to clear the way. He noted the project was visualized decades ago as part of an extensive flood-control strategy.

"After 60 years of dawdling and delay, we have finally fully funded this protection project and are set to get this albatross off the ground," Schumer said in a statement.

Fire Island's new dunes are part of a more sweeping $700 million federal storm-protection plan for Suffolk's South Shore. More than half would be spent on the mainland, elevating roads and raising more than 4,000 flood-prone homes. Wetlands, marshes and bogs would also be recreated.

Fire Island's dune- and beach-rebuilding project has three phases.

One month after work begins on the east end, the second phase on the unpopulated west end should start in October. Both projects should finish in six months, before the nesting season for the endangered piping plover starts.

The third phase, replenishing dunes in the island's residential midsection, isn't expected to start until December, after buyouts and about 700 easements are secured.

Brookhaven Supervisor Edward P. Romaine noted the dangers facing Fire Island and the mainland until then.

"We were very lucky in 2013 to avoid a hurricane," he said. "If we get banged with a storm and it hits us anywhere near where the dune system has collapsed and doesn't exist anymore, we could have ocean flooding into the bay."

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Kevin Ryan, 42, wants the dunes rebuilt to protect his Brightwaters home, though his repaired beachfront home on Fire Island is likely to be demolished.

"Losing a house on Fire Island stinks, but you have to protect the mainland," said Ryan, who is self-employed.

Sandy caused about $100,000 in damage as ocean water swept through his island house, creating havoc with electrical systems and plumbing and causing mold.

The draft plan raises the prospect of using the power of eminent domain to secure the easements and beachfront homes. The Army Corps notes "the potential unwillingness of homeowners" to agree and says New York State has "indicated that Suffolk County may initiate condemnation proceedings."

A Suffolk spokeswoman Wednesday had no comment on the Army Corps plan.

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In addition to planned buyouts, six oceanfront homes will be relocated on their lots; and decks or pools on another 18 properties will need to be modified, according to the plan.

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