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Army Corps to Asharoken: Agree to our terms or project is done

Private beaches along Asharoken Avenue in the Village

Private beaches along Asharoken Avenue in the Village of Asharoken, are shown on Monday, July 6, 2015. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has told the village that their beach repair plan will require full public access and extra parking. Credit: Steve Pfost

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers wants Asharoken officials to provide written support for a proposed $23.7 million dune restoration or the project will be terminated, according to a letter to the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

If Asharoken and the DEC “do not support the plan or do not intend to provide the necessary local cooperation, then I am required to stop all work and . . . facilitate revocation of existing funds,” said Col. David Caldwell, commander of the Corps’ New York District, in the Sept. 22 letter.

Cutting off federal funds would terminate the project’s feasibility study, which is 15 years in the making and about a year from completion. The DEC has paid the Corps more than $1.1 million toward the study. Legislation passed in the aftermath of superstorm Sandy made all of the study’s costs since then 100 percent federally funded.

State officials say the village must pay a 30 percent share of the pre-Sandy funding, or about $330,000, whether or not the study is completed.

The study, which will define the project’s final scope and cost, is a mandatory prerequisite to beginning restoration of the North Shore village’s eroded dunes.

In addition to providing written support for the project itself, village officials must put in writing their willingness to acquire the necessary real estate for public parking and beach access paths, “which may ultimately include condemnation of property,” Caldwell said in the letter.

Asharoken officials say they are being asked to commit to the project before knowing what the final plan will entail, including the cost to be borne by taxpayers in a village with a roughly $2 million annual budget.

“They blindsided us,” Mayor Greg Letica said.

The project hit a roadblock last month when Letica emailed residents saying a call with Caldwell led him to believe “we have reached the end of the road.”

The project has long been controversial, as many residents oppose allowing public access on their private property, and federal law requires such access anywhere the Corps puts down sand using taxpayer money.

In Asharoken’s case, access would require the addition of five public walkways to access the beach and five public parking areas at half-mile intervals along the project’s 2.4-mile stretch.

For their part, Army Corps officials say their requirements haven’t changed, but after years of village resistance to public access, the agency needs a clear and written response that Asharoken is willing to go through with the project and its mandates before it invests more federal taxpayer money into completing the study.

“We don’t do feasibility studies just for the sake of feasibility studies,” said Clifford Jones, chief of the Planning Division for the Corps’ New York District. “It’s not a commitment to proceed to construction [that the Corps is seeking], but it is a willingness to proceed to construction.”

Letica had previously said the village should go through with the study, even if public sentiment did not support the final project. He said having a completed study would give the village a head start if officials later decide to pursue a restoration project.

But now, Letica said he doubts the project will happen.

“Pending the response of residents, my feeling is that they don’t want to do it,” Letica said. “But I’ll leave it up to them. . . . The feedback that I’ve gotten from people is that they’re all very happy that the project is not going to be done.”

Officials at the DEC, the intermediary between Asharoken and the Corps, said it’s too soon to say the project is dead.

“We’re going to do whatever we need to do to get this study completed,” said Susan McCormick, chief of DEC’s coastal erosion management program.

DEC officials say they are drafting a response to Caldwell’s letter, with Corps officials calling for a response by Oct. 18.

Letica said residents and beach lot owners would be able to voice their support or opposition for moving forward at a public hearing and through a poll. Both will be scheduled sometime after the DEC’s response is delivered to the Corps, he said in a Sept. 28 email to residents.

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