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Seawall madness is damaging Long Island’s shorelines

A powerful nor'easter in March battered an artificial

A powerful nor'easter in March battered an artificial dune in Montauk, exposing a half-mile-long stretch of buried sandbags intended to combat erosion along the beach. Credit: Gordon M. Grant

Long Islanders have a romance with their coast. For many of us, it’s why we live here.

We enjoy quiet walks on the beach. We watch our children frolic in the surf. We cast from shore for stripers and blues. We revel in the solitude of early mornings, the escapism of lazy afternoons and the magical sunsets as evening descends.

It’s been a wonderful relationship.

But our coastal policies cannot be romantic. Not if we want to protect the coast we love. Not after the damage we’ve seen inflicted by storms. Not with the threat we know is posed by constantly rising seas.

In protecting our coastline, and ourselves, we must be clear-eyed in our vision, rigorous in our analysis, and in thrall to facts, not feelings. That’s not easy, but it is necessary.

The region has been wrestling with this problem more overtly since superstorm Sandy’s ravages in 2012. And we continue to refuse to learn. We’ve built too close to the water’s edge. We refuse to admit that nature always wins this battle in the end and that waging war in one place can lead to damage somewhere else.

The latest case in point is efforts by homeowners in Nissequogue Village to build seawalls at the base of the bluffs below their homes on Long Island Sound. But it’s not only them. Seawalls, bulkheads, revetments and groins made of rock, concrete, timber and huge sandbags have been cropping up all over Long Island, from the North Fork to North Haven to Nissequogue, where roughly a dozen oceanfront properties are armored.

This is madness.

In trying to fix the coastline in one place, these structures do tremendous damage. Natural coastlines absorb the energy of waves, especially storm waves that deposit sand farther inland and strengthen natural barriers. But waves reflect off seawalls, accelerating erosion in front of the structure — as in March, when nor’easters exposed the sand-bag “dune” protecting downtown Montauk. The loss of beach is troubling. It limits the spit of beach the public is entitled to access on the water side of the mean high-water mark. It also destroys habitat for horseshoe crabs and shorebirds. And by interrupting the natural flow of sand along the coast, hard structures also erode beaches to the sides. That’s a problem in Nissequogue, where a barrier beach to the east that protects Stony Brook Harbor is losing sand because of seawalls and bulkheads built by homeowners.

Federal and state law dating decades is clear on this. “Natural protective feature areas” — the term for the vast majority of Long Island’s coast — must be preserved and strengthened. Development in many of these areas is supposed to be prohibited. It is never supposed to increase hazards elsewhere. And when homes are threatened, the first option is to move them out of harm’s way. In other words, retreat. That’s what enlightened leaders in East Hampton Town are exploring now to ensure Montauk’s survival. It’s what state officials and elected leaders in towns and villages across Long Island need to do, too.

— The editorial board