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Fire Island’s Ocean Bay Park dune project divides neighbors

The U.S. Army Corps plans to take down

The U.S. Army Corps plans to take down 18 homes lining the beachfront in Ocean Bay Park, Fire Island, in order to replace dunes that were washed away during superstorm Sandy. Charlie Molesphini stands at the spot that determines the Army Corps' decision to tear down homes to replace the dunes on Sept. 12, 2015. The house on the left in Seaview will stay. The house on the right, in Ocean Bay Park, will be torn down. Credit: Veronique Louis

As a federal dune project inches closer to reality, pressure is mounting in one Fire Island community — shattering dreams and longtime friendships.

In Ocean Bay Park, a summer haven that offers both daytime tranquillity and nighttime carousing, the community is divided between those supporting the storm-shielding dunes and those dreading them.

Fueling the anxiety is the fact that 18 oceanfront homes are slated for demolition to clear the path for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Powerful storms — from the Great Hurricane of 1938 to superstorm Sandy — have destroyed hundreds of homes on the barrier island, but removing houses for flood protection is a first.

Linda and Charles Molesphini, whose cherished 83-year-old A-frame is among those targeted, have watched the new dunes rising on the island’s east and west ends slowly close in.

“It’s like waiting for the gallows,” she said.

Suffolk County officials recently advised the owners of the 18 homes that they can have one last summer on their decks facing the Atlantic surf. Buyout offers were made in October, with about half accepted to date.

The Fire Island Association and Ocean Bay Park homeowners groups back the Army Corps plan, leaving the owners of the targeted homes with few allies.

“We don’t have a very sympathetic point of view,” said Bob Adler, 79, of Manhattan, one of the affected homeowners. “People are fighting over their million-dollar homes when people don’t have enough to eat.

“The beach does need renourishment, no question about it, but to tear down homes? It’s a heartbreak,” he said.

Another homeowner, Emil Chynn, an eye surgeon from Highland Lakes, New Jersey, is resigned to taking a buyout “to end the uncertainty.”

“It’s like a divorce,” he said. “At some point you realize the marriage is over, and you want to move on.”

Residents fearing the worst

The well-appointed homes facing demolition contrast with Ocean Bay Park’s start in the 1920s, when 40 or so houses were built, many for New York City cops and firefighters, according to a SUNY history, “The Fire Island National Seashore.”

During evenings, the first summer vacationers sometimes relaxed with servants from the more exclusive Point O’ Woods enclave nearby.

World War II, which limited overseas vacations and prompted gasoline rationing, boosted Ocean Bay Park’s popularity, and over the years it grew to a few hundred homes.

Families, day trippers and partyers, who frolicked at Flynn’s Fire Island, a restaurant-bar created out of a Coast Guard station, all found an antidote to stressful weekday lives, where children could be told to “run out and play.”

In the last few decades, individuals who achieved considerable financial success and valued the same simple pleasures joined in, often settling by the ocean or the bay.

But the coming 15-foot-high dune has put these ties through an emotional wringer.

“I think the community is very mixed and more are opposed than you would think,” said Anthony Lorenzo, 45, a Manhattan investment manager, whose A-frame family home is slated to be torn down.

The demolitions, he fears, may embolden the government to take out more homes in the future.

“It is a horrible precedent to set,” he said.

Dune project divides neighbors

With the oceanfront homes in jeopardy, the neighbors behind them stand to benefit in terms of improved views and higher property values.

But David Schindel, 44, of Dix Hills, who has a second-row home, isn’t celebrating.

“We all want a replenished beach, we all want a dune, but it’s a different situation when you have to give up your house,” he said.

If the house in front is demolished, he’ll likely face higher insurance costs, a greater risk of storm damage and stricter rules on how he can use his property.

Another second-row homeowner, Peter Incorvaia, said some of his neighbors are “licking their chops. They know they will have oceanfront property and human nature took over.”

Incorvaia himself, however, fears the new dune will be so close to his home that it could become a dangerous “chute” for floodwaters.

As the project slowly moves forward, longtime friendships have frayed.

Some of the targeted homeowners say they now feel shunned by longtime neighbors, some of whom awkwardly avoid them on the boardwalk and beach because they don’t know what to say.

Buyout offers are now being weighed, but they don’t come close to covering the homes’ emotional value.

“In my heart, my house is irreplaceable,” said Daniel Lieberman, a psychiatrist from Kamuela, Hawaii, whose home is slated for demolition. His children loved summering in the home his mother designed, he said.

Thanks to a number of post-Sandy improvements, Charlie Molesphini said the couple’s home — their main residence though they winter in Delray Beach, Florida — could easily withstand another superstorm.

The current dune, he noted, is just 2 1⁄2 feet shorter than the planned Army Corps dune. “We’re not exactly in dire straits here.”

But last fall, dredging got underway at Smith Point County Park in the east and Robert Moses State Park in the west. The communities of Saltaire and Kismet are next for the dune, with work at Ocean Bay Park slated to start in October.

“We have had a lot of good times, and a lot of good friends ... and we’re going to be out of a home,” lamented Angelo Paladino of Manhasset, who bought his house in 1986.

He plans to take the buyout and purchase another home nearby.

“You sort of throw your hands up and say ‘What the hell,’ ” he said.

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