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No decision yet on shoring up Nissequogue bluffs

Workers shore up an area of the shore

Workers shore up an area of the shore line near Bluff Road in St. James, April 21, 2017. Credit: Ed Betz

A woman who owns two homes above Nissequogue Village’s eroding beach bluffs may wait months to learn if she can legally build boulder walls to slow the loss of her land after trustees this week adjourned hearings on the matter.

Trustees said at the June 27 hearings that they wanted to see more preliminary work, including surveying and landscaping, before they reopen the proceedings. Homeowner Sharron MacDonald’s lawyer says her houses will fall into the water unless she builds, but some experts and neighbors say the walls will do lasting damage to the surrounding coast.

MacDonald paid $1.2 million for 4 Bluff Rd. in 2009 and $6.6 million for 5 Fox Point Dr. in 2015. She is selling the Fox Point Drive property, asking $7.6 million for a 10,000-square-foot house that sits on 3.5 acres and has its own bowling alley. The North Shore beachfront the properties occupy is now eroding at a rate of 2.5 feet per year, more than double the rate that held for much of the 20th century, the engineer who drew MacDonald’s wall plans said at the hearings.

Those plans call for placing 2 1⁄2-ton boulders over sand and plastic webbing at the bottom of the bluffs. The walls would run for 800 feet and cost about $1,000 per foot, including accompanying landscaping. The Bluff Road home is about 60 feet from the edge of the bluff, and the Fox Point Drive home under 150 feet, said the engineer, Allen Glenn Bernhard.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation gave its approval earlier this year, but to build legally, MacDonald needs village trustees to overturn an April finding by the local coastal management board that the walls would violate decades-old preservation policies, wouldn’t guarantee a long-term solution to erosion and could even worsen it nearby.

MacDonald, who did not attend the hearings, was represented by Hauppauge lawyer Glenn Gruder, who said the management board’s hearings were “unsupported by empirical evidence” and misinterpreted key planning documents. “Nobody can dispute that they are eroding and if nothing is done they will ultimately . . . fall into the water,” he said of MacDonald’s houses.

MacDonald’s contractors have already built a wall at 4 Bluff Rd. without waiting for village permits, Gruder said. Additionally, some of that wall may actually sit on a neighbor’s property, necessitating new surveys, Mayor Rich Smith said. If trustees uphold the coastal management board’s findings, she could be forced to demolish the wall, Smith said.

Steve Resler, a senior coastal manager for the state’s Department of State, warned that MacDonald’s walls would starve nearby public beaches of sand. State law prohibits walls and other structures in areas like Nissequogue’s bluffs “unless a primary residence is in imminent danger and can’t be moved away,” he said, adding that the DEC had erred in granting permits.

“There was a serious series of mistakes made on the issuance of those permits,” he said. “They don’t meet the standards of the regulations that were written to implement them.”

In an email, DEC spokesman Sean Mahar said the agency’s permits were lawful and “based on expert technical assessments.” He called Resler’s comments “not only inaccurate but misleading.”

A DOS spokesman wrote in an email that Resler’s comments were his own and were not authorized by the department.

Trustees have overturned the coastal management board to let residents build walls on the bluffs before, and several of MacDonald’s neighbors were expected to begin their own permit applications for walls.

Trustees are unlikely to set a new precedent in MacDonald’s case, Smith said this spring. His board considers every case on its own merits, he said, but “I don’t ever want to see someone in a position where their home, their investment, everything they’ve worked for is threatened.”

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