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Bellone defends Fire Island dune project against piping plover suit

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone announces his support

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone announces his support for a Fire Island restoration project at a press conference at the Ocean Beach Fire Island Ferry terminal in Bayshore on Oct. 1, 2014. Credit: Daniel Brennan

Suffolk County is seeking to join the federal government in defending against a lawsuit over piping plover nesting grounds that has temporarily halted Fire Island's dune-rebuilding project.

County Executive Steve Bellone, local politicians and other officials Wednesday hailed the federal project as a crucial storm defense for Long Island.

"The barrier island provides protection for tens of thousands of people here, all across the Great South Bay," Bellone said, standing outside the Fire Island ferry terminal in Bay Shore. "This is as important as it gets . . . The project must go forward."

The county Wednesday filed a motion to intervene in the case in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York.

A spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Conservation, which is partnering on the project with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Suffolk, could not say whether the state would also try to step in.

Audubon New York last month persuaded a federal judge to halt the project's first two phases, which call for building 3 miles of dunes on Fire Island park lands. The nonprofit claims the 15-foot-high dunes would jeopardize endangered piping plovers.

More than 200 acres of nesting grounds lie where the Army Corps intends to build the dunes, Audubon New York states in its lawsuit. The plan to create almost 100 acres of new piping plover habitat is experimental and could fail, the suit states.

The DEC said Wednesday that the dune plan has been improved, with more safeguards for the migratory birds.

The 19 miles of dunes the Army Corps is planning would cost $207 million. Most of the sand would be poured in front of oceanfront homes in 17 communities.

Supporters agree with Bellone that the new dunes would protect Fire Island and shield the mainland from storm surges. Critics, however, say the dunes could erode in as few as five years, with no money pledged to replenish them.

The U.S. Geological Survey, in its analysis, said the Army Corps' plan overstated how much protection the dunes would provide for the South Shore.

"The dunes will protect Fire Island infrastructure and the communities," Cheryl Hapke, an agency scientist, said last week. "There is no data we've analyzed that would indicate that by building a beach and dunes on Fire Island, that would protect the mainland and coast from flooding -- unless it was an extremely huge storm."

Asked Wednesday about the agency's criticisms, Bellone said: "We absolutely disagree with that."

Gilbert Anderson, Suffolk public works commissioner, said the new dunes are part of a bigger federal project that includes raising thousands of flood-prone South Shore homes. "It's definitely not the 'end-all' solution," he said at the news conference.Bellone said Suffolk expects to soon start the surveys of residential properties needed for the hundreds of easements needed for dune construction. About 41 private properties are targeted for buyouts to make way for the dunes.

The Village of Mastic Beach, which sits across the bay just west of Smith Point County Park, also has asked the court to join the federal government's defense. The Fire Island Lighthouse Preservation Society, which says recent storms have threatened the historic site, wants to file a friend-of-the-court brief.

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