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Ruling to restart Fire Island dune project hailed by officials

A piping plover guards its nest outside an

A piping plover guards its nest outside an "exclosure" on the outer beach at Smith Point Park in June 2013. Credit: Joseph D. Sullivan

Officials Saturday pledged to swiftly restart Fire Island's dune-building project after Audubon New York lost a court battle over whether a small section posed too much risk to endangered piping plovers.

The dismissal of the nonprofit's lawsuit means the first dunes could be built this winter in parklands on the barrier island, said Gilbert Anderson, Suffolk public works commissioner.

In her decision Friday, U.S. District Judge Sandra Feuerstein rejected Audubon New York's request for a preliminary injunction stopping a three-mile portion of the 19-mile project.

"Since plaintiff has not demonstrated a likelihood of success on the merits of any of its claims against defendants, it is unnecessary to consider the 'irreparable injury' and 'public interest' prongs of a preliminary injunction motion," she wrote.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had put the first phase of the $207 million dune project in Smith Point County Park on hold after the lawsuit was filed last month. Audubon New York claimed the project would destroy too much of the plovers' prime nesting areas.

The Army Corps and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service have said creation of man-made habitat and other protections for the birds are part of the plan.

Audubon New York officials declined to comment until after consulting with its attorneys Monday.

Federal, state and local officials were buoyed by the judge's decision.

"I look forward to working with the federal partners and local stakeholders to ensure that the work gets back on the tight timeline we have had it on since the spring so that residents can soon take comfort in an added layer of protection against future storms," Rep. Tim Bishop (D-Southampton) said in a statement.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Mastic Beach Mayor Bill Biondi also hailed the decision.

Anderson said the first dredging contract now could be awarded as soon as next week, with a second to follow next month. The Army Corps hasn't released an updated work schedule.

About 10 days ago, Suffolk began surveying properties for the project, including 41 oceanfront homes tagged for buyouts. About 400 easements are also needed in populated areas.County Executive Steve Bellone said Saturday that he will meet Monday with officials on Fire Island. "We're going out there to basically assess where we are with the surveys and discuss all the issues related to moving the project forward," he said.

Anderson said the surveys must be done by Dec. 1, though appraisals can start as soon as surveyors begin submitting them, perhaps next week. Suffolk has received about 170 easements from property owners so far.

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