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Gilgo State Park could reopen to off-road vehicles in 2019, officials say

A U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plan to move sand from Fire Island Inlet to the park could start this autumn and ease severe erosion there.

Some of the erosion at Gilgo State Park

Some of the erosion at Gilgo State Park as seen in July of last year. Photo Credit: Chris Ware

Closed by erosion for three years in a row, Gilgo State Park in Babylon might reopen to off-road vehicles as soon as 2019, if the sand-choked Fire Island Inlet undergoes one of its periodic dredgings, officials said.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which cautioned that plans remain preliminary, is considering removing 2.1 million cubic yards of sand from the inlet, which now imperils mariners, and pouring it onto Gilgo.

This would, at least temporarily, fix the park’s recurring erosion. A series of similar projects have fattened the beach, but the Atlantic Ocean has repeatedly scoured the sand away.

"That would be great news that at one point in the spring of next year, we would hope to reopen this park" to off-road vehicles, said George Gorman, Long Island deputy regional director of the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, in the past week.

The beach now is so steep and narrow that only surfers and surf fishermen are permitted to enjoy it.

The latest erosion became urgent in April, when the state Department of Environmental Conservation said it found just 36 feet divided the Atlantic from Ocean Parkway, the barrier island’s spine. This heightens the risk that a storm will cleave the island in two, officials have said.

So the state asked the Army Corps to again dredge the inlet and shore up Gilgo — and pay the full cost, citing public flood control laws.

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and state Sen. Phil Boyle (R-Bay Shore) are pressing the federal agency to finalize its plan, a Schumer spokesman said.

“Senator Schumer will continue to make the case as to the need of this critical dredge and work aggressively to secure the federal dollars that will allow the Army Corps to actually get it done," the spokesman said.

“This will be one of the most significant projects in years for our boating and fishing communities,” Boyle said.

The DEC said the Army Corps could start dredging this autumn.

The work cannot start until after threatened piping plovers have flown off — typically by Labor Day. Proponents want the project to start as quickly as possible to reduce the odds of another storm like superstorm Sandy destroying Ocean Parkway.

It took months and cost about $33 million to re-create dunes and reopen the parkway, relied on by countless beachgoers, commuters and residents, after the 2012 storm.

How long this new sand stays put could hinge on the removal of the long-abandoned U.S. Coast Guard Station in Gilgo State Park.

Lots of riprap remains. Waves wash over large slabs, supports and bulkheads. Part of the station’s concrete foundation still commands the beach.

Hard structures, such as groins, jetties and sea walls are designed to hold a beach in place. However, geologists say they rob downdrift beaches of sand.

Gilgo’s riprap has "kind of acted like a groin," said Gordon Canary, Boyle’s district director.

"The groin causes an eddying effect to the sea to the west; that’s where we now have the most severe erosion,” he said.

If the Coast Guard Station is not removed, the volume of sand would almost entirely cover it, Gorman said. Standing on the current beach, he said: “It would be over our heads.” 

How quickly the Army Corps might secure the specialized equipment needed to dredge more than enough sand to fill the Empire State Building and pump it almost 5 miles west to Gilgo beach is one unknown.

Another is whether whatever entity responsible for the Coast Guard station, which the branch quit in the 1920s, could find the funds and haul the riprap away before the beach is replenished, Canary said. He has asked the Coast Guard for the property records.

In 2013, the Army Corps spent more than $15 million dredging nearly 1.5 million cubic yards of sand for several nearby beaches. Gilgo got the lion’s share.

Yet, recalled longtime Gilgo surfer Daniel Pickering, 35, of Amityville, “It almost started eroding immediately.”

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