New York City could move beachfront homes and businesses to higher ground

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Seven days a week, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., the Montauk Chamber of Commerce is open and taking calls. One of the questions they get most often is “Who has oceanfront rooms available this week?” according to executive director Jennifer Fowkes. “Oceanfront is the reason people come here.”

Montauk is the easternmost point in New York State, to the tip of Long Island. At its widest point it is not quite three miles in diameter. The small downtown strip of shops and restaurants are just a few blocks from the beach. Everywhere you go in town you can smell the ocean. In the summer, Montauk’s population increases from about 4,000 year-round residents to about 30,000.

“We are defined by our geography,” said Jeremy Samuelson, director of planning for the city of East Hampton, which includes Montauk. “That’s what makes it such an attractive community. And that’s what makes us so vulnerable.

Like cities and towns all along the East and Gulf Coasts, East Hampton is grappling with the growing threats posed by climate change — rising sea levels, the prospect of more intense storms, rising groundwater — and try to figure out how to adapt.

One of the recommendations of its Coastal Assessment and Resilience Plan, which the city council is set to adopt, is “managed retreat” – voluntarily moving homes and businesses from certain low-lying, vulnerable areas to higher ground. This includes parts of downtown Montauk.

None of the details have yet been specified, but the idea is that downtown Montauk, where most hotels and businesses are located, “would be significantly reduced,” said Alison Branco, director of adaptation. to the climate for the Nature Conservancy in New York. York, who advised the city on its plans.

One of the hotels on Montauk Beach that would be moved to higher ground elsewhere in town as part of the Managed Retirement Plan. (Samantha Fields/Market)

“It would be much narrower. You may need to harden or raise the road. But this section of hotels and motels [along the beach] should move elsewhere, somewhere high and dry, where they could exist for a long period of time.

It would also give the beach more room to move and change, as sandy beaches are meant to do, and better protect the city from rising sea levels and storm surges.

But it’s pretty hard to sell. Especially in business.

Looking for advice

“The appeal of these hotels is being on the water,” said Paul Monte, whose family owned one of Montauk’s resorts for decades. “If we take these hotels and put them in the middle of a field somewhere, they certainly won’t have the same drawdown that they have now.”

Monte wants the city to become more proactive in planning for climate change; he has been involved in these efforts for years, including as chair of the beach erosion committee.

“You are always worried that there will be a very serious storm that will destroy the whole city,” he said. “But the idea of ​​just taking the whole waterfront and moving it upstream to a high point just doesn’t make sense to me.”

The exterior of Daunt's Albatross.
Daunt’s Albatross, Leo Daunt’s family hotel, is located one block from Montauk Beach. (Samantha Fields/Market)

It doesn’t make sense for Leo Daunt either. He runs two businesses a block from the beach — Daunt’s Albatross, a hotel that has been in his family for three generations, and a restaurant across the street called Bird on the Roof.

“Nobody in Montauk, none of these companies are climate denying,” he said. “Everyone realizes that the sea level is rising. Everyone realizes that there is a threat.

But for now, Daunt and Monte said they feel there are too many questions and too few details about what a managed retreat would look like and how it would actually work.

“I continually asked for someone to tell me or show me how it might make sense financially,” Monte said. ” Who’s already done it ? Where did they do it? And how did they do it?

Investment and adaptation

But no one has really done it before in the continental United States. Cities and towns in other states are also talking about a managed retreat, but there’s no comparable community Montauk can turn to to see how it turned out.

“While it’s nice to be the leader in something like this, when you’re talking about people’s livelihoods and the future of a community, you don’t really want to be a guinea pig,” Monte said. .

At this point, the Chamber of Commerce, which represents many of the city’s business owners, is requesting an in-depth economic study of how managed retirement works and how it will affect local business owners and the community, which depends heavily from summer tourism. .

Many of these hotels along the beach charge several hundred dollars, sometimes over $1,000, per night. And tourists who stay at these hotels eat and shop at many local restaurants and businesses.

The chamber is also advocating for the city to focus more on other adaptation options — such as changing building codes to perhaps allow hotels and other businesses to be elevated instead of moved, and more. investment in beach restoration.

A wave crashes against the shore of a porch in Montauk.
A wave whipped up by Super Hurricane Sandy crashes into the Montauk shoreline in October 2012. (Sheila Rooney/Getty Images)

This is already happening to some extent. A few years after Super Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012 and caused severe erosion along the coast, the Army Corps of Engineers stepped in and installed Geotube bags in Montauk to shore up the dunes.

“It’s basically like a sandbag, only a giant version, like the size of a bus,” Branco told the Nature Conservancy. “These are designed to kind of stabilize the beach. It’s a bit like a dike buried under the sand.

East Hampton also spent hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, sometimes as high as $1 million, to put sand back on the beaches.

But, Branco said, these are short-term fixes. In the long term, as the sea level rises, the hardening of the coastline will only aggravate erosion. Eventually, this could translate to hotels that are, in effect, on the edge of a cliff above the water, with no accessible or usable beach in front of them.

“Beaches and sand dunes and wetlands and all of these kinds of natural shorelines are pretty resilient to something like sea level rise, if they’re allowed to function as they naturally do,” said she declared.

“So if we back up, make space, allow sand dunes to be sandy, big storms will wash them away. Then, in the summer, much of that same sand will be washed away again. And it will move and change all the time, but there will always be a sandy beach here. But if we try to hold it still, the way we drew the shoreline on the map several hundred years ago, however, we’re going to risk losing the beach entirely.

“Different Versions of the Future”

In Montauk, Branco and Jeremy Samuelson, the planning director, said attitudes were changing, albeit slowly. When they talk about managed retirement in meetings now, Samuelson said, “It’s a different reaction than we had five or 10 years ago. »

People still bristle, especially over the term “managed retirement,” but they’re more open to talking about it than before. Samuelson has also come to appreciate more how invested people are in their businesses and their city — and not just financially. Many families, like those of Monte and Daunt, live in Montauk and have passed down homes and businesses for generations.

“I think one of the dangers here is that we may be underestimating the extent to which this is a very personal and very emotional journey that we’re asking people to go on,” Samuelson said. “If we don’t treat this with due respect, we won’t find a true partnership and we won’t be successful.”

Ultimately, Samuelson and Branco believe that successfully bringing the community to the idea of ​​a managed retirement will be critical to Montauk’s future. Branco is optimistic that people will get there.

“Especially when they realize the alternative isn’t for everything to stay as it is,” she said.

“I think that’s the thing that people have to realize and struggle to realize: there’s no future where everything stays exactly as it is today. Thanks to climate change, this is no longer an option. So really what we have to look at are the different versions of the future. And do we do what we want with it? Or do we wait to see what the water decides for us?

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