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Residents take to Montauk beach to protest government erosion project

Protesters stand in a pit at an excavation

Protesters stand in a pit at an excavation site on the ocean beach in Montauk, Nov. 6, 2015. They are protesting the work being done by the Army Corp of Engineers on the ocean beach in Montauk that is meant to protect the downtown business district. Photo Credit: Gordon M. Grant

Opponents of a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers beach project in Montauk protested on the beach there Sunday in an attempt to halt work that critics fear will erode the public shoreline.

In the latest pushback against the government project, about 150 people held hands to spell out "#SANDONLY" in 6-foot tall characters at South Edison Beach and carried signs saying "Save Montauk."

An Army Corps contractor has begun burying 14,000 large sandbags along 3,100 feet of Montauk beach, a project designed to protect downtown Montauk and authorized after superstorm Sandy in 2012.

But critics say the sand bags would artificially fortify the shoreline in a way that would lead to more erosion. Protesters called for a project that uses only sand, which they say helps naturally deflect wave energy and preserves the beach.

At least 13 protesters have been arrested for disorderly conduct since the protest started Nov. 6, said Thomas Muse, a coordinator with Surfrider Foundation's Eastern Long Island chapter, a group that advocates for beach access. There was no construction Sunday and no arrests.

Lisa Spellman, a gallery owner who splits time between Manhattan and Montauk, said she decided to protest when she saw machinery cutting into existing dunes and vegetation.

"I saw them bulldozing beautiful, healthy, wide dunes," said Spellman, who was arrested Nov. 9 after refusing to leave a construction pit.

The project's initial cost of almost $9 million is being paid for by the federal government. The Town of East Hampton and Suffolk County have agreed to fund maintenance of the artificial dune, estimated at $80,000 to $150,000 a year.

In the wake of protests, East Hampton Supervisor Larry Cantwell, who has supported the project, has asked about the legal ramifications of suspending or canceling it. Requests for comment left with Cantwell and the Army Corps were not returned Sunday.

Legis. Jay Schneiderman, who moved this year from Montauk to Southampton and will take over in January as town supervisor, said Sunday he supports the project. He said the bags are a temporary measure until a sand-only project can start in 2018.

"Ideally the town would have seen this coming long ago and periodically arranged for sand to be pumped onto the shore," Schneiderman, a Montauk hotel owner, wrote in an email.

Protesters said they opposed planned walkways to provide ocean access. "We want our beach to look like a beach. Not walkways or plastic bags filled with sand," said Bailey Thompson, 34, of Montauk, carrying her 4-month-old baby.

Legis. Al Krupski (D-Cutchogue) was the lone vote at the county against the project.

Krupski said in an interview that burying the bags of sand was akin to trying to armor the shoreline.

"You can't fight Mother Nature," he said Sunday. "When are we going to learn?"

After protestors formed the hashtag and letters "#SANDONLY" by holding hands, organizers could not locate the owner of a drone that was going to take their picture, and the crowd disbursed.

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