The Southampton Town trustees are suing the state and Southampton Village, alleging they improperly allowed homeowners to place steel bulkheads and boulders in front of multimillion-dollar Hamptons houses in the aftermath of superstorm Sandy.
The lawsuit calls the structures, buried on the beach behind at least eight homes on Gin Lane -- including mansions owned by Joshua Harris, a lead owner in the Philadelphia 76ers, and Vincent Camuto, co-founder of fashion brand Nine West -- a "time bomb" that endangers surrounding sand and dunes during storm surges and erodes nearby public beaches.
When storm damage occurs, the lawsuit also says, state coastal policies call for "strategic retreat" -- moving homes farther from the beach -- and not rebuilding bulkheads.
Southampton Village Mayor Mark Epley said Monday that the suit -- filed Dec. 24 in State Supreme Court in Riverhead -- was "absolutely ridiculous."
"They're expecting the village of Southampton to tell homeowners to pick their homes up and move them back? When they spent tens of millions on homes, on maintenance?" he said.
Epley and the village's building inspector, Jon Foster, named in the suit, said they followed village code when permitting the hardened structures.
The Department of Environmental Conservation declined to comment Monday, citing pending litigation.
Town trustee Fred Havemeyer disagreed with the installation of bulkheads. "They [residents] are taking advantage of a situation to go all out, make themselves very secure in their position on the beach," he said. "They didn't take into account the disastrous ramifications in the future for beaches and the public."
Jurisdiction is part of issue
Southampton Town trustees, an elected body whose authority dates to a 1686 decree, claim jurisdiction from the high tide line to the crest of the dune. The body is tasked with protecting the beach for the public benefit, but landward of the dune's top falls under the jurisdiction of Southampton Village, according to the suit.
Aram Terchunian, coastal geologist of First Coastal Corporation, who worked on a number of the beach projects, said all work was properly permitted by the village and the DEC. And, he said, most properties in Southampton Village are already protected by bulkheads. "The bulkheads have been there for 80 years," he said. "There's still a beautiful beach and dune in front of it."
Epley called the suit a "parting shot" by Havemeyer, who leaves office Tuesday and has long feuded with the village over beach access.
The town, which surrounds the village, decided in the early 2000s not to allow hardened structures such as bulkheads. Instead, the town board, which is separate from the trustees, embarked on a $26 million plan to pump 2 million cubic yards of sand on Sagaponack and Bridgehampton beaches -- a project paid for with a special property tax on shoreside homes.
But Southampton Village does allow some hardened structures along the ocean.
Foster said Sandy washed out up to 100 feet of dunes in some spots. That created a rush from homeowners who wanted to protect their properties with something more than truckloads of sand, he said.
Sandy puts policies to test
After the storm, the DEC issued a general permit to expedite rebuilding. That included allowing bulkheads to be replaced, up to 18 inches higher.
In March, homeowners along the ocean in the village began applying for permits to rebuild bulkheads or starting work on permits they received before Sandy. A total of eight permits, most along Gin Lane, have been issued or applied for in Southampton Village, according to village records.
But instead of simply replacing structures, workers installed steel walls that were in some cases 5 feet or 10 feet higher, Havemeyer said Monday, displaying photographs that he said would be entered into evidence. Existing dunes were decimated and the new bulkhead covered with sand and reburied.
Last summer, the DEC asked the village to temporarily stop issuing permits to install erosion-protection structures, according to a July 19 letter from the agency to inspector Foster. But after meeting with Foster, the DEC lifted that request, the letter says.
"When we have laws like this and they're meeting the laws, how do you tell the people not to do it, just because someone like Fred Havemeyer doesn't like bulkheads?" Foster said.
Terchunian, the geologist, said people don't even realize the bulkheads are there.
When they are exposed, the homeowners come in and "repair them, restore them, replace them and build the dune back over them."