Dune Divides Montauk’s Beaches, and Residents

A hurricane protection project of the Army Corps of Engineers is creating disharmony on the beach of Montauk, N.Y.

MONTAUK, N.Y. — Dunes are usually a source of wonder, with their waving grasses, rippling sands and the slow reveal of waves.

When Kevin Gurl saw the new dune in the downtown of this East End hamlet in April, all he wondered was what was going on.

“My first thought was: ‘Wow. This can’t be it,’” Mr. Gurl said on Sunday from his home in Brooklyn. “It was disgusting. Half the beach was gone, and there’s this pipe spewing who knows what.”

For the past two decades, Mr. Gurl and his family have been traveling from one end of Long Island to the other, escaping to the splendor of New York’s easternmost beaches — even as they have seemed less splendid in recent summers. Hordes have descended on Montauk, drawn less by fishing lines and surf breaks than by velvet ropes and magazine spreads.

Credit...Gordon M. Grant for The New York Times

At least the beach was still there, if more crowded, unlike that favorite watering hole, now a sushi or tapas bar.

Yet just as Hurricane Sandy helped lure crowds to “the End” (Montauk was hit hard, but far less so than beaches farther west), the storm has reshaped this community again. Over the winter, the Army Corps of Engineers completed a 3,100-foot dune stretching from the IGA supermarket at the western edge of downtown past a half-dozen motels-turned-boutique beach retreats.

Storm surges and roaring tides are a fact of life here, where almost everyone talks like an amateur hydrologist. Many residents have been clamoring for storm defenses for years, yet just as many believe such efforts to try to outsmart the sea are a waste of both fiscal and natural resources.

As Montauk prepares for its first summer with the new dune, which now divides friendships as well as beaches, residents and weekenders are left wondering if the town has destroyed the shore in order to save it.

“Beaches are organic, they’re fungible, they’re alive and they move,” said Thomas Bradley Muse, a lifelong resident and environmental adviser for the Eastern Long Island chapter of the Surfrider Foundation. “If the beach can’t move landward, then it’s going to move seaward, and it’s gone. And Montauk is its beaches.”

And so much more.

“We’re protecting the entire community and all its infrastructure,” said Steve Kalimnios, also a native and the owner of the Royal Atlantic Beach Resort and condominiums, in front of which the dune rises. “Obviously I’m on the front lines, but this is a much bigger issue than protecting the beach.”

Nor is the fight confined to this community of 3,500 (or 35,000, depending on the weekend). Within the next month or so, the Army Corps is set to release its plans for the South Shore from the Fire Island Inlet to Montauk Point.

In the works for half a century, the proposal will recommend coastal defenses for 83 miles of the highly coveted beaches. If surfers, fishermen and retirees are upset over this dune project, imagine what could happen when the corps’ work reaches the hedgerows of the financiers and philanthropists farther west.

“We were asked to do this work,” said Joseph Vietri, chief of planning and policy for the North Atlantic Division of the corps. “We don’t just go places and do things. A natural solution is always the best one, but you have to have alternatives when that won’t work.”

In October 2012, Hurricane Sandy flooded homes, uprooted trees, toppled decks, destroyed businesses and killed a woman walking her dog on the beach — a reminder of just how familiar the surf can be here.

The proposal for the South Shore is expected to offer a long-term solution that residents and business owners hope will not alter the beaches as drastically as the dune project has. But Montauk, with the lowest lying downtown on the East End, could not wait for the corps’ final plan, which could call for bigger beaches or condemning properties.

“The Army Corps came in, the funds were available, and this is what they proposed,” said Larry Cantwell, the supervisor for the Town of East Hampton, which includes Montauk. “There weren’t a lot of other alternatives.”

Montauk’s geography is one of its greatest attractions, as well as its greatest dangers. Two narrow strips of land separate Fort Pond and Montauk Lake from the Atlantic Ocean. If either breaches, it would flood parts of the hamlet and destroy the infrastructure running beneath. After two years of debate, the 3,100-foot dune and its wall of 14,000 1.7-ton sandbags became the lesser of many evils.

“Compared to some of the proposals they had, with a whole boardwalk and everything — like this was the Jersey Shore — I think they worked really hard to come up with the best solution for us,” said Julia Prince, a third-generation entrepreneur and former town councilwoman.

The most common objection to the dune, which cost roughly $9 million, is that it has robbed the downtown of half its public beach, since it had to be built toward the surf. There is widespread concern that this disrupts the natural topography of the sands, which requires the right ratio of dune, berm and tidal slope to remain in stasis. Now that the dune lies on a good portion of the berm (the flat part where people tend to lay out their towels), there is scientific evidence suggesting the beach in front of the dunes could erode.

But some argue more is at stake than the beaches. “It’s not like we’re protecting private homes,” said Paul Monte, head of the chamber of commerce. “These are businesses providing jobs and taxes for the entire community.”

Yet there is the question of whether the dune will be strong enough to protect the town.

“If they really predicted where and how the next storm will hit, these guys deserve the Nobel Prize,” Gordon Kelly, who has lived here 30 years, said over sunset beers at the Montauket Hotel.

After outcry at community meetings, the reaction turned to full-scale demonstrations on the beach when the dump trucks and excavators arrived. Hundreds of surfers lined the beach, backed by their boards, to try to block the workers. The Army Corps did not always help its cause, such as when a contractor left a trash bin on the beach one day and it flooded, depositing garbage along the shore.

Decades of rebuilding beach communities from Key West, Fla., to Nantucket, Mass., has also reduced the federal government’s willingness to foot the bill after disasters. The new dune at Montauk was built using Hurricane Sandy recovery funds, but East Hampton and Suffolk County must pay to maintain it.

The dune has had unintended consequences. The rise at Lowenstein Court, a footpath, has made it difficult for older and disabled people to get to the beach.

“You used to be able to carry your beach gear or your kayaks right onto the beach,” said Judith Tanur, who retired here with her husband in 1998 after decades of summering. “Now it’s hard for a lot of us older folks even just to get to the beach.”

Some environmental groups have come around to support the dune. Jeremy Samuelson, executive director of the 36-year-old Concerned Citizens of Montauk, cited a decade-long fight in nearby Sagaponack as a situation best avoided. There, wealthy waterfront homeowners sued for the right to build sea walls to protect their properties.

Though his group was unenthusiastic about the dune, it decided that public sand was preferable to private stone.

“This is emblematic of what is going to become one of the fiscal, governmental and political stories of the coming decades up and down the coast,” Mr. Samuelson said.

Some hope the project might solve a different sort of inundation.

“One positive of the dunes,” Mr. Gurl said, “is the beaches have gotten so small, maybe it will turn people off from coming.”

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