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State agency says Long Beach violated environmental law

Elio Esquivel, 5, and Angel Jesus Cardoso, 3,

Elio Esquivel, 5, and Angel Jesus Cardoso, 3, play in the sand after bulldozers made sand dunes to prevent erosion in Long Beach on Saturday, August 22, 2009. Credit: Ana P. Gutierrez

Long Beach broke state environmental law and increased residents' exposure to storm flooding by excavating sand dunes at beach entrances, according to the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

The state agency issued a notice of violation on Sept. 3 after city workers used payloaders and other heavy equipment to expand existing passages through vegetated dunes at six sites, agency spokeswoman Aphrodite Montalvo said.

City Manager Charles Theofan said the city undertook the reconstruction work - between Nevada and Connecticut avenues on the West End and between Neptune and Roosevelt boulevards to the east - to increase disabled access to the beach.

The dunes, built in the 1980s after Hurricane Gloria struck Long Island, are protected under state law because they help prevent storm flooding, absorb wave energy and their ready supply of sand delays erosion. The DEC has scheduled a conference with city officials for tomorrow to address the violation of the Tidal Wetlands Act, which carries a penalty of up to $10,000 a day.

The excavation of the 13- to 16-foot-high dunes to create street-level entries will likely increase the risk of flooding in surrounding areas, Montalvo said. "It is probable that there is now more exposure to areas behind those primary dunes," she said.

Theofan said he believed the city's DEC beach grooming permit authorized the work, which involved cutting through sand and beach grass and building flat platforms and walkways. "It was our belief that our activity fell within the permit," he said, adding that while sand was shifted, none was removed.

As of yet, the city has not applied for the required permits, Montalvo said.

Theofan said those with disabilities have only "two ways to get onto the beach when there's a dune: You either have to go over it or go through it. We feel that at least some of the entrances on the West End should be that you go through."

A 2004 settlement of a federal lawsuit brought by disabled beachgoers and an advocacy group mandated that the city make accessible to people in wheelchairs five beachfront entrances by December. Of the six walkways the city rebuilt, only one was named in the lawsuit: Neptune Boulevard.

Theofan said the work, done in June, was "in the spirit of" the settlement.

Rick Hoffman, president of West End Neighbors, said the project has been one of the group's top priorities for almost two years because old walkways were dilapidated and temporary replacements were inadequate. "I'd say ninety-nine percent of the West End residents are extremely happy with . . . the progress that's being made with the beach entrances," he said.

"No resident would want the integrity of those [dunes] ruined because we've all invested large amounts of money in our properties," he said.

Coastal geologist Aram Terchunian said pathways such as these - perpendicular to the beach - are especially vulnerable to storm surge. "That's a pathway for floodwaters," said Terchunian, of First Coastal Corp. in Westhampton Beach. "Anything that lowers the dune in even one small spot, usually the water's going to go through there."

West End resident Ted Guba, 61, who owns a house directly behind the dunes on Illinois Avenue, said he was alarmed when he saw construction vehicles digging trenches four to six feet wide next to the original passage and heaving sand and debris atop the dunes.

Ramps must be at least three feet wide under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

"Heavy vehicular traffic over the top of the dunes and destroying pre-existing beach vegetation which protects homes on the ocean - I find it hard to believe that that comes under the categorization of grooming," Guba said.

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