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May 9th, 2008

KICKED IN THE GROINS.

by Lawrence Pfeil Jr


Photo courtesy First Coastal Corporation (c) 2008.

While the beach erodes, lawyers argue over who is at fault and who should pay for the massive beach erosion caused by the groins (jetties) at Georgica that has devastated the beaches in Sagaponack and Bridgehampton. A parallel lawsuit was also filed about the erosion caused by the jetties that stabilize Shinnecock Inlet.

Even the casual visitor to the beaches of Sagaponack and Bridgehampton can see the results of long-term erosion. Gone are the wide beaches backed by sea green dunes covered in beach grass and present are the scars of fresh erosion that reaches into the mainland farm soils of Sagaponack. Bulldozers are busy rebuilding the dunes in Sagaponack with sand trucked in from the mainland. But who is to blame? Is this just Mother Nature or is there a more sinister force at work…government? Cynthia Ireland, a retiree whose modest family home was bought more than 50 years ago when this area was a quiet potato field, claims that Suffolk County is responsible and wants them to restore the beach. Suffolk County claims that it is just Mother Nature.

Who is right?

According to Ireland’s lawyer, her son Gary, the story of the Georgica groins (stone structures that extend perpendicular from the shoreline into the ocean, which are designed to trap sand that naturally flows along the beach from east to west) begins in the 1960’s and as usual is intertwined in politics and money. Wealthy industrialist and aviation pioneer Juan Tripp (remember Pan American Airways?) owned three of the eleven mansions in the Georgica area and after numerous attempts at his own form of erosion control (he even tried dumping old cars at the toe of the dune to halt wave attack) the ocean took out a huge chunk of his real estate in the 1962 Northeaster. This same storm caused a breach in the barrier island in Westhampton Beach and prompted Suffolk County to ask the US Army Corps of Engineers and New York State to rebuild the beaches and include some groins if the beach fill began to erode too quickly. This project became known as the Fire Island to Montauk Point (FIMP) project and covered 84 miles of beachfront from Montauk Point to Fire Island Inlet.

After Mr. Tripp heard news of the groin project in Westhampton, he figured that he needed groins as well. Despite the fact that the project originally called for sand fill and groins only if needed and despite the fact all 13 of the groins in the initial plan were slated for Westhampton Beach, as if by divine intervention two of the groins disappeared from the Westhampton Beach project and magically appeared in the Georgica area of East Hampton, right in front of Mr. Tripp’s houses. The US Army Corps of Engineers did not really like this new plan and in their letter to Congress in 1964, they predicted erosion to the west of the groins followed by litigation. As if prophetically, both have come true. Mrs. Ireland, whose home is west of the Georgica groins (termed downdrift, like downstream, because the sand flows from east to west) has had to move her home landward twice in response to coastal erosion. Along the Sagaponack ocean shoreline, there are miles of exposed headland (dark brown soils more associated with farm fields than the white blonde sand of beaches and dunes) apparent to the naked eye and over a dozen recently artificially restored dunes. The beaches are so narrow that in some places the waves run right up to the base of the eroded dune.

In contrast, the beaches to the east of the groins (termed updrift) are wide and healthy. None of the houses to the east have been moved and none are threatened. In fact the dunes have grown seaward in many places.

Suffolk County’s version of past events and present conditions is quite different. The groins are part of a well-designed project that is functioning well. The maximum extent of any erosion that might be associated with the project is only around 900 feet to the west and the rest of the shoreline is merely experiencing the normal erosion associated with Mother Nature. The County has enlisted experts to support this position and the two sides are locked in combat in US Federal Court in Brooklyn.

As the experts battle and the lawyers argue, the beach erodes. Less beach means less habitat, both for endangered species and for people. Less beach means less money for beach and tourist based businesses and thus less jobs. Who is to blame and who should pay to fix the problem? You decide. Take a drive out to Sagaponack and walk on the beaches. There is public access at Sagg Main Beach, Ocean Road, Gibson Lane and Town Line Road in Southampton as well as Beach Lane and Georgica Beach in East Hampton.

You can find out more about the groins, the Georgica area and coastal processes at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/groyne, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/georgica_pond, www.saveournybeaches.org, and http://www.nan.usace.army.mil/project/new york/factsh/pdf/fimp.pdf. Also take an aerial view of the Georgica beach using GoogleEarth. Try zooming closer and farther as well as tilting the image to get different scales and views of the beach.

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