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Local officials want court order suspending dune restoration on Fire Island lifted

Sand fences and orange markers just east of

Sand fences and orange markers just east of the campgrounds outline the beginnings of an extensive area blocked off because of nesting grounds of piping plovers. Credit: Joseph D. Sullivan

Local officials Wednesday blasted a federal judge's decision to suspend a Fire Island dune restoration project to protect endangered birds.

U.S. District Judge Sandra J. Feuerstein last week ordered the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to delay the project's first two phases to protect piping plover breeding grounds at Suffolk County's Smith Point County Park and Fire Island Lighthouse Beach. The park and the lighthouse beach lie within the federal Fire Island National Seashore.

The temporary restraining order, requested by the New York chapter of the Audubon Society, does not affect the third phase, aimed at rebuilding dunes to protect Fire Island communities. The next hearing in the case is set for Oct. 8.

The federal plan calls for rebuilding dunes that would be 13 to 15 feet high and stretch for about 19 miles along Fire Island beaches. Dredging of 7 million cubic yards of sand was expected to start soon.

Several officials ridiculed the judge's order during a news conference at Smith Point park in Shirley. They said restoring the dunes would protect Long Island homes from storm surges like the one that flooded houses during superstorm Sandy.

"I love the piping plover," Islip Supervisor Tom Croci, a Republican, said. "But the species I care about the most are the human beings."

State Sen. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) said New York's recovery from Sandy has been slow compared with New Jersey's. "You go to the Jersey Shore, it looks the same way it was in the first place," he said.

Federal officials said Wednesday the first contract related to the dune project was to have been awarded last week but was postponed by Feuerstein's order.

In a statement, Meredith Kelly, a spokeswoman for Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), said federal and state officials had approved the dune project. "The only thing standing in the way of dune construction is the Audubon lawsuit."

In a phone interview, Rep. Tim Bishop (D-Southampton) said the delay caused by the order was "deeply, deeply unfortunate."

"All of us are frustrated that these projects take as long as they do," Bishop said.

Zeldin, who is seeking to unseat Bishop, declined to criticize the congressman on dune restoration. "There's nothing partisan about sand," he said.

Mastic Beach resident Frank Fugarino, whose home was damaged during Sandy, said dune restoration is critical for homeowners. "What's at stake . . . is loss of life," he said.

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