To fight climate change, Mastic Beach is buying homes in flood-prone areas. NewsdayTV's Shari Einhorn reports. Credit: Newsday/Steve Pfost, File Footage: Amanda Voisard

There was once a house at 512 Riviera Dr. in Mastic Beach, a one-story cottage with an expansive view across Narrow Bay toward Fire Island.

The house was badly damaged in Superstorm Sandy in 2012 and flooded again over the next decade when big storms came through. The house was sold to the Town of Brookhaven last December and razed in March, its driveway torn out and its septic tank dug up and carted off — one of about 60 buildings removed as part of the town’s efforts to clear the flood plain and let the rising sea reclaim the land.

Sea levels on the East Coast are expected to rise 10 to 14 inches over the next 30 years, according to a report released last year on sea-level rise from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and other agencies. By 2050, “moderate” flooding will happen 10 times as often as it does today.

Many planners and climate experts say "managed retreat" — the strategy of moving human infrastructure away from the advancing ocean — will be unavoidable in the decades to come. Ideally, they say, starting now. Mastic Beach is one of the few places on Long Island that has launched a deliberate program of retreat, offering voluntary buyouts to people in flood-prone areas and restoring wetlands as a buffer for those who remain.

The idea, said Alison Branco, climate adaptation director at The Nature Conservancy in New York, which has contributed $250,000 for Mastic Beach property buyouts, is “to make everyone safe and dry before they get wiped out by a storm.”

The state Environmental Bond Act passed last year earmarked up to $250 million for voluntary buyouts in its $4.2 billion budget, which Branco and other local climate scientists hope could lead to a thoughtful, permanent statewide managed retreat program. 

Mastic Beach could be a model for other towns contemplating such a program, but proponents as well as skeptics acknowledge that withdrawing from Long Island’s shorelines will be fraught with logistical and financial challenges.

Mastic Beach, a hamlet of about 15,000 people, was hit hard by Sandy: Hundreds of houses were damaged and septic systems were overcome, pouring sewage into the flooded streets, yards and waterways.

After the floodwaters receded, some homeowners in the area, like others along Sandy’s path, took buyouts funded through the Federal Emergency Management Administration. In many places, post-Sandy buyouts were scattershot — houses torn down here and there, empty lots becoming an eyesore for neighbors and a maintenance burden for the municipality. 

The Town of Brookhaven had a more ambitious plan. Rather than simply level a few wrecked houses and move on, town planners sought to acquire all the properties they could in the most flood-prone areas, and then restore the surrounding salt marsh as a refuge for native species and a natural barrier against rising tides and heavy storms. 

Since Sandy, Brookhaven has bought more than 300 plots of land on 525 acres within the Mastic Beach Conservation Area, stretching from William Floyd Parkway in the west to Osprey Pointe in the east, at a cost of $1.8 million. Most of the money comes from bonds issued by the town and from fines paid for environmental violations such as illegal dumping in the wetlands.   

Many of the properties acquired were undeveloped, and by buying them the town ensures they will remain so. About 60 houses have been bought and torn down by the state, county or the town.

Luke Ormand, senior environmental analyst for Brookhaven’s land management department, has been cold-calling homeowners, offering to buy their plots and houses. Some initially rejected buyout offers and rebuilt after Sandy, only to be flooded again. Finally, Ormand said, “they realize it just isn’t feasible anymore.” Ormand continues to make offers on boarded-up houses and waterlogged land.

Houses built in the flood plain are a financial strain for the town as well, said Brookhaven Town Council member Dan Panico, who is incoming town supervisor. “The town can’t continue to maintain roads and drainage structure, which are underwater simply from the tides.”

Within the larger conservation area, the town mapped out 149 acres, from Sheepen Creek to Pattersquash Creek, for a concentrated buyout and restoration project. About 90% of the land there is less than 2 feet above sea level, the groundwater just inches below ground. Trees that once shaded suburban lawns are dead or dying, their roots steeped in saltwater, and stretches of Riviera Drive are impassable after a heavy rain or at high tide.

In the past two years, 28 parcels of land and four houses have been bought in the project area, including the house at 512 Riviera Dr.

The town enlisted Ramboll, a Danish architecture and engineering firm with an office in Lindenhurst, to design the project, with grants from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The plan calls for two meandering tidal creeks that will channel high tides and storm surges. “Nothing can stop this area from being flooded,” said Alan Duckworth, an environmental analyst for Brookhaven. “What we can do is better control floodwater and allow it to recede faster from the land.”

The tidal streams also provide habitat for killifish, which eat mosquito larvae, helping to control the bloodthirsty swarms; and they in turn provide food for wading birds such as great blue herons, American and snowy egrets and black-crowned night herons. 

Invasive phragmites — which crowd out the lower grasses where endangered salt marsh sparrows build their nests — will be removed and replaced with native spartina.

A little farther inland and at a slighter higher elevation, there will be two “hammocks” — a coastal shrub and hardwood forest — that will “slow the velocity of storm surges coming in,” Duckworth said, and provide habitat for the diamondback terrapin, the only turtle in North America adapted to salty environments.

In public surveys, locals said that access to the waterfront was their top priority, so the designers added wide, ADA-compliant boardwalks to their drawings where portions of the impassable road will be removed.

Mastic Beach has been praised by climate specialists for its forward-looking and holistic plan for retreat, but its vision might be difficult to replicate elsewhere.

The parcels Brookhaven bought are small, just 20 to 50 feet wide, and many had been acquired decades ago for very little money, or none. According to Ormand, Mastic Beach marshland was given away for free with magazine subscriptions in the 1930s. One man received a plot as a bar mitzvah present in the 1950s and has held onto it since. Another, a doctor in Manhattan, accepted a plot as payment from a patient. Neither of those was ever built on.

The town was able to buy most of the undeveloped plots for just $5,000 to $10,000 each, and the houses it bought were generally modest cottages.

To buy out a place like Fire Island, with its pricey summer houses, would cost “in the billions of dollars,” said John Cameron, president of the Long Island Regional Planning Council. And a city such as Long Beach — “that’s also in the billions.”

There are other formidable challenges. Climate specialists suggest that a managed retreat program in New York should address two significant drawbacks of federal buyout efforts: long delays and the question of who gets offered what — both of which raise equity concerns.

Government buyout programs must run a benefit-cost analysis to determine which properties will be bought and destroyed, and which could be raised and repaired. In the cold calculus of the benefit-cost analysis, the modest house is often not worth saving.

“When that’s the standard, people with higher value properties are helped to rebuild, and people with lower-value properties are pushed to take a buyout,” Branco said. “So you end up with a shoreline full of wealthy people.” 

Those who do take buyouts find it is not a quick solution. A study by the Natural Resources Defense Council found sellers wait 5.7 years on average to close a federally funded buyout — a particular hardship for lower-income owners. (By contrast, buyouts in Mastic Beach are generally closed within two to four months.) 

“Sometimes people can’t afford to leave a house that’s been damaged,” said Shameika Hanson, who works on climate adaptation at The Nature Conservancy. Some decline an offer and hope the next storm misses them. Others stay in their flood-damaged houses, with mold blooming on damp walls, while they wait for their check.

Even when the money arrives, often it’s not enough to relocate to a comparable but higher and drier area. “If you don’t know where you’re going, and you can’t afford to move, then you can’t afford to sell,” Hanson said.

Brookhaven continues to buy up houses and properties in southern Mastic Beach, as two more houses were removed earlier this month.

The grants the town received for the restoration project covered just the planning phase; the landscaping work will cost another $15 million to $20 million, according to Duckworth. The funding hasn’t yet been secured, and it could be another five years before the work begins.

But the salt marsh knows nothing of budgets or timelines. At 512 Riviera Dr., spartina grass already has begun to creep into the void where the house once stood, spreading its roots into the wet, spongy soil. In another season or two, the house’s footprint will have disappeared into the marsh.

There was once a house at 512 Riviera Dr. in Mastic Beach, a one-story cottage with an expansive view across Narrow Bay toward Fire Island.

A 2019 Google Street View image shows the property that...

A 2019 Google Street View image shows the property that once stood at 512 Riviera Dr. in Mastic Beach. Credit: Google

The house was badly damaged in Superstorm Sandy in 2012 and flooded again over the next decade when big storms came through. The house was sold to the Town of Brookhaven last December and razed in March, its driveway torn out and its septic tank dug up and carted off — one of about 60 buildings removed as part of the town’s efforts to clear the flood plain and let the rising sea reclaim the land.

Sea levels on the East Coast are expected to rise 10 to 14 inches over the next 30 years, according to a report released last year on sea-level rise from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and other agencies. By 2050, “moderate” flooding will happen 10 times as often as it does today.

Many planners and climate experts say "managed retreat" — the strategy of moving human infrastructure away from the advancing ocean — will be unavoidable in the decades to come. Ideally, they say, starting now. Mastic Beach is one of the few places on Long Island that has launched a deliberate program of retreat, offering voluntary buyouts to people in flood-prone areas and restoring wetlands as a buffer for those who remain.

WHAT TO KNOW

  • The Town of Brookhaven has been buying vacant properties in Mastic Beach and removing buildings damaged in Superstorm Sandy in an effort to clear the flood plain and let the rising sea reclaim the land. 
  • Climate experts say it could serve as a model for a statewide managed retreat program and keep people away from future storms.
  • The program might be too expensive to replicate in other areas of Long Island.

The idea, said Alison Branco, climate adaptation director at The Nature Conservancy in New York, which has contributed $250,000 for Mastic Beach property buyouts, is “to make everyone safe and dry before they get wiped out by a storm.”

The state Environmental Bond Act passed last year earmarked up to $250 million for voluntary buyouts in its $4.2 billion budget, which Branco and other local climate scientists hope could lead to a thoughtful, permanent statewide managed retreat program. 

Mastic Beach could be a model for other towns contemplating such a program, but proponents as well as skeptics acknowledge that withdrawing from Long Island’s shorelines will be fraught with logistical and financial challenges.

Buyouts and restoration

An empty, revegetated lot where a house once stood at the corner of Dahlia Drive and Elm Road East in Mastic Beach, on Nov. 3. The lot is next to another home that has been taken down and will be left open space. Credit: Newsday/Steve Pfost

Mastic Beach, a hamlet of about 15,000 people, was hit hard by Sandy: Hundreds of houses were damaged and septic systems were overcome, pouring sewage into the flooded streets, yards and waterways.

After the floodwaters receded, some homeowners in the area, like others along Sandy’s path, took buyouts funded through the Federal Emergency Management Administration. In many places, post-Sandy buyouts were scattershot — houses torn down here and there, empty lots becoming an eyesore for neighbors and a maintenance burden for the municipality. 

The Town of Brookhaven had a more ambitious plan. Rather than simply level a few wrecked houses and move on, town planners sought to acquire all the properties they could in the most flood-prone areas, and then restore the surrounding salt marsh as a refuge for native species and a natural barrier against rising tides and heavy storms. 


Where flood-prone Long Island properties have been bought

Search the map to see flood hazard areas in Nassau and Suffolk, and where properties in these areas been bought for the purposes of "managed retreat."


Since Sandy, Brookhaven has bought more than 300 plots of land on 525 acres within the Mastic Beach Conservation Area, stretching from William Floyd Parkway in the west to Osprey Pointe in the east, at a cost of $1.8 million. Most of the money comes from bonds issued by the town and from fines paid for environmental violations such as illegal dumping in the wetlands.   

Many of the properties acquired were undeveloped, and by buying them the town ensures they will remain so. About 60 houses have been bought and torn down by the state, county or the town.

Luke Ormand, senior environmental analyst for Brookhaven’s land management department, has been cold-calling homeowners, offering to buy their plots and houses. Some initially rejected buyout offers and rebuilt after Sandy, only to be flooded again. Finally, Ormand said, “they realize it just isn’t feasible anymore.” Ormand continues to make offers on boarded-up houses and waterlogged land.

An abandoned home at 69 Dahlia Drive in the process...

An abandoned home at 69 Dahlia Drive in the process of being torn down in Mastic Beach. The lot will stay open space. Credit: Newsday/Steve Pfost

Houses built in the flood plain are a financial strain for the town as well, said Brookhaven Town Council member Dan Panico, who is incoming town supervisor. “The town can’t continue to maintain roads and drainage structure, which are underwater simply from the tides.”

Within the larger conservation area, the town mapped out 149 acres, from Sheepen Creek to Pattersquash Creek, for a concentrated buyout and restoration project. About 90% of the land there is less than 2 feet above sea level, the groundwater just inches below ground. Trees that once shaded suburban lawns are dead or dying, their roots steeped in saltwater, and stretches of Riviera Drive are impassable after a heavy rain or at high tide.

In the past two years, 28 parcels of land and four houses have been bought in the project area, including the house at 512 Riviera Dr.

The town enlisted Ramboll, a Danish architecture and engineering firm with an office in Lindenhurst, to design the project, with grants from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The plan calls for two meandering tidal creeks that will channel high tides and storm surges. “Nothing can stop this area from being flooded,” said Alan Duckworth, an environmental analyst for Brookhaven. “What we can do is better control floodwater and allow it to recede faster from the land.”

The plan for the Southern Mastic Beach Ecological Restoration project.

The tidal streams also provide habitat for killifish, which eat mosquito larvae, helping to control the bloodthirsty swarms; and they in turn provide food for wading birds such as great blue herons, American and snowy egrets and black-crowned night herons. 

Invasive phragmites — which crowd out the lower grasses where endangered salt marsh sparrows build their nests — will be removed and replaced with native spartina.

A little farther inland and at a slighter higher elevation, there will be two “hammocks” — a coastal shrub and hardwood forest — that will “slow the velocity of storm surges coming in,” Duckworth said, and provide habitat for the diamondback terrapin, the only turtle in North America adapted to salty environments.

In public surveys, locals said that access to the waterfront was their top priority, so the designers added wide, ADA-compliant boardwalks to their drawings where portions of the impassable road will be removed.

Costs present challenges

Mastic Beach has been praised by climate specialists for its forward-looking and holistic plan for retreat, but its vision might be difficult to replicate elsewhere.

The parcels Brookhaven bought are small, just 20 to 50 feet wide, and many had been acquired decades ago for very little money, or none. According to Ormand, Mastic Beach marshland was given away for free with magazine subscriptions in the 1930s. One man received a plot as a bar mitzvah present in the 1950s and has held onto it since. Another, a doctor in Manhattan, accepted a plot as payment from a patient. Neither of those was ever built on.

The town was able to buy most of the undeveloped plots for just $5,000 to $10,000 each, and the houses it bought were generally modest cottages.

To buy out a place like Fire Island, with its pricey summer houses, would cost “in the billions of dollars,” said John Cameron, president of the Long Island Regional Planning Council. And a city such as Long Beach — “that’s also in the billions.”

There are other formidable challenges. Climate specialists suggest that a managed retreat program in New York should address two significant drawbacks of federal buyout efforts: long delays and the question of who gets offered what — both of which raise equity concerns.

Government buyout programs must run a benefit-cost analysis to determine which properties will be bought and destroyed, and which could be raised and repaired. In the cold calculus of the benefit-cost analysis, the modest house is often not worth saving.

Riviera Drive, now inaccessible by vehicles, in Mastic Beach. Credit: Newsday/Steve Pfost

“When that’s the standard, people with higher value properties are helped to rebuild, and people with lower-value properties are pushed to take a buyout,” Branco said. “So you end up with a shoreline full of wealthy people.” 

Those who do take buyouts find it is not a quick solution. A study by the Natural Resources Defense Council found sellers wait 5.7 years on average to close a federally funded buyout — a particular hardship for lower-income owners. (By contrast, buyouts in Mastic Beach are generally closed within two to four months.) 

“Sometimes people can’t afford to leave a house that’s been damaged,” said Shameika Hanson, who works on climate adaptation at The Nature Conservancy. Some decline an offer and hope the next storm misses them. Others stay in their flood-damaged houses, with mold blooming on damp walls, while they wait for their check.

Even when the money arrives, often it’s not enough to relocate to a comparable but higher and drier area. “If you don’t know where you’re going, and you can’t afford to move, then you can’t afford to sell,” Hanson said.

Brookhaven continues to buy up houses and properties in southern Mastic Beach, as two more houses were removed earlier this month.

The grants the town received for the restoration project covered just the planning phase; the landscaping work will cost another $15 million to $20 million, according to Duckworth. The funding hasn’t yet been secured, and it could be another five years before the work begins.

But the salt marsh knows nothing of budgets or timelines. At 512 Riviera Dr., spartina grass already has begun to creep into the void where the house once stood, spreading its roots into the wet, spongy soil. In another season or two, the house’s footprint will have disappeared into the marsh.

A Newsday analysis shows the number of referees and umpires has declined 25.2% in Nassau and 18.1% in Suffolk since 2011-12. Officials and administrators say the main reason is spectator behavior. NewsdayTV's Carissa Kellman reports. Credit: Newsday Staff

'Why am I giving up my Friday night to listen to this?' A Newsday analysis shows the number of referees and umpires has declined 25.2% in Nassau and 18.1% in Suffolk since 2011-12. Officials and administrators say the main reason is spectator behavior. NewsdayTV's Carissa Kellman reports.

A Newsday analysis shows the number of referees and umpires has declined 25.2% in Nassau and 18.1% in Suffolk since 2011-12. Officials and administrators say the main reason is spectator behavior. NewsdayTV's Carissa Kellman reports. Credit: Newsday Staff

'Why am I giving up my Friday night to listen to this?' A Newsday analysis shows the number of referees and umpires has declined 25.2% in Nassau and 18.1% in Suffolk since 2011-12. Officials and administrators say the main reason is spectator behavior. NewsdayTV's Carissa Kellman reports.

SUBSCRIBE

Unlimited Digital AccessOnly 25¢for 5 months

ACT NOWSALE ENDS SOON | CANCEL ANYTIME