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A coastal consensus is needed

Lindenhurst Mayor Michael Lavorata stands on one of

Lindenhurst Mayor Michael Lavorata stands on one of 39 vacant waterfront properties the village is selling to neighboring owners with the provision that no construction can take place on them. Credit: Newsday/Michael Dobie

As the sea rises and climate change sweeps around us, some Long Island communities have responded with sound steps.

The Town of Smithtown is revamping regulations on waterfront development and considering buying environmentally sensitive, mostly low-lying, land to keep it in a natural state to absorb floodwaters.

Lindenhurst Village is selling 39 waterfront properties damaged by superstorm Sandy and now vacant to neighboring homeowners with the proviso that no construction take place on them. Undeveloped land helps absorb storm surges like Sandy’s that filled neighborhood streets.

 East Hampton Town continues to develop its adapt-and-retreat plan for Montauk, combining short-term fixes to gird the valuable downtown with a long-term mission to move to higher ground.

These are all sensible actions. But here’s the bad news:

Each is happening in a silo. In Long Island’s fractured system of government, more than 70 municipalities have control of some part of the region’s coastline. And they rarely work with one another.

Smithtown knows the problems this can create. Town leaders have been frustrated as officials in Nissequogue Village grant permits for sea walls and other hard barriers to protect homes on bluffs; the resulting disruption of sand flowing to the east has eroded two town-owned beaches that help protect Stony Brook Harbor. The pattern repeats around Long Island. One community builds a groin to protect its piece of coastline, and the community next door loses sand from its portion.

Similarly, Freeport is pushing hard for sea gates to protect it from storm surges like Sandy’s, which devastated the village. But the water that hits such a barrier is not all going to dissipate or return magically to the ocean; it’s going to come ashore somewhere that’s not armored, probably close by.

Fortunately, the Army Corps of Engineers, which has released a preliminary report on sea gates in the metropolitan area, has hit the pause button on the Freeport proposal. It should do the same for a similar plan for gates at the west end of Long Island Sound that would protect New York City but could put part of Nassau County’s North Shore at risk. The corps, not  previously known for enlightened thinking, must vet such ideas carefully.

The time has come for a regional coastal commission, like the one that works effectively in California. The commission, in conjunction with counties and cities, would help plan and regulate development and other activity along the coast. Proposals would require a coastal permit from the commission, which would grant or deny that based on what’s good for the entire region.

This would be a monumental change for Long Island, where municipalities zealously protect their land-use control. But that single-mindedness and the shortsightedness of many elected officials have spelled trouble for the region. This board typically deplores added layers of government, but the need for a body with regional vision to deal with this regional problem is compelling.

Long Island isn’t the only part of the country struggling with what to protect, and how. Not everything can or should be saved.   There simply isn’t enough money. Not when the Center for Climate Integrity estimates it would cost at least $42 billion by 2040 to build sea walls to protect coastal cities with more than 25,000 residents, and more than $400 billion if you add smaller cities.

Southold Town is looking at an Army Corps plan to protect one locale, Hashamomuck Cove, from flooding with a sand berm that would cost $14.6 million, not including the cost of sand replacements that would be needed every few years.

Coordinating our response is essential. And as the world flails in its efforts to slow climate change, the urgency of getting this right is all around us. Miami regularly takes on water, Louisiana is shrinking fast, some cliffs in California are collapsing and taking homes and other buildings with them, beaches in North Carolina are being swallowed by the Atlantic Ocean.

Yet in states like Connecticut, Rhode Island, Mississippi and South Carolina, building in flood zones is increasing faster than in other parts of those states. This is madness, especially when the National Institute of Building Sciences calculates that every $1 spent to buy or demolish a flood-prone building saves $6 in post-disaster costs.

Maine, North Carolina and Oregon are among states that ban sea walls, which destroy the beaches before them. Using vegetation as a buffer has been gaining favor in California. The state’s coastal commission has made sea walls a temporary last resort and encourages strategic retreat on the premise that planned retreat is better than forced retreat. One California city is considering buying out several rows of waterfront properties and renting them out to recoup its money in 30 years. Then the city would decide what to do with the properties, with abandonment-and-retreat an option. It’s an intriguing idea worth discussing here.

On Long Island, Montauk is most at risk from sea level rise, but rising seas also lead to rising groundwater. Communities like Freeport, Lindenhurst, Mastic Beach, Long Beach and Fire Island are dealing with basement flooding and stormwater that comes in quickly but takes a long time to flow back out.

Long Island needs to get smarter about this fight, and work together so a solution in one place doesn’t cause more trouble in another. Nature is oblivious to political boundaries. We must respond in kind.