New Yorkers Sue Over Sandless Beaches

OH, for a relaxing day at the beach: the sun, the waves, and the lawsuits.

Yes, lawsuits, not swim suits.

Residents of Fire Island, one of New York's tony summer communities, are now suing the US government for $200 million. At issue is one of summer's major ingredients: sand.

For the last 40 years, the sand has been washing away from the beaches along the south shore of Long Island. Now the residents are blaming the federal, state, and local governments for building jetties in the 1950s to stabilize Shinnecock Inlet and one at nearby Moriches. Although the inlets have spawned a fishing industry, residents claim the jetties built to safeguard them have disrupted the flow of sand that would normally be swept onto the beaches of the barrier islands.

Without the regular flow of sand, erosion is rampant. In some places, it occurs at a rate of 11.5 feet per year compared with a 1950s rate of 1.5 feet per year.

The impact of the sand erosion is easy to see at Westhampton, where more than 150 houses were lost two years ago when the Atlantic broke through the beach into a shallow bay behind the barrier islands.

The issue of beach erosion reaches all the way to Washington. In the past, the Army Corps of Engineers would be called in to dredge up millions of yards of sand to replenish the beaches. In his 1996 budget, however, President Clinton decided the Corps should no longer be involved in local beach stabilization unless the erosion is in more than one state or is of national significance.

But eroding beaches are a natural fact of life. "I would estimate that at any given moment 80 percent of the American shoreline on all coasts is eroding," says Orrin Pilkey, a professor at Duke University and an authority on shoreline erosion.

Mr. Pilkey believes the shoreline problems are related to global warming. A few hundred years ago most of the barrier islands were still building seaward. "Now almost all are narrowing," he says, blaming a global sea level rise. Every year during hurricane season, there are debates over whether to allow any new residential development on the nation's barrier islands. The current inlet at Shinnecock is the result of a 1938 hurricane.

Complicating the issue are the unpredictable effects of sea walls, jetties, and groins (a protective jetty) built to dike the ocean, stabilize the inlets, and trap the sand. "Often it take decades before the real impact is clear," says Pilkey.

The impact has certainly been clear on the beach community of Westhampton Dunes. Starting in December 1992, a series of powerful storms washed away the narrow beach separating the Atlantic from Moriches Bay. By March of 1993, a new inlet 3,000 feet wide and 20 feet deep pushed through the sand.

Mayor Gary Vegliante could only look out his window and watch as the tides flooded through the gap and into what was once the town's main road. After the storms, the population of the village plunged, since only 60 houses were usable.

The village had been arguing for some kind of sand enhancement since 1982 when it first brought its lawsuit. The suit claimed the government's actions - building the jetties and groins nearby - had injured its beaches. By last year, the community's claim for damages had swollen to $200 million.

Last December, the suit was settled with an agreement that the governments would guarantee a beach capable of withstanding even the worst storms for the next 30 years.

"I've got sand," Mr. Vegliante exults. The community also got the right to rebuild its houses, plus $2 million to help it get back on its suntanned feet. The public, however, will now have access to the beaches.

John O'Connell, a lawyer who represented Westhampton Dunes and a significant part of its $4 million legal fees, believes the same arguments are valid for Fire Island. Some 316 residents have agreed to pay Mr. O'Connell $2,000 each for his services. The Corps says it has no comment about the suit.

Fire Island resident Gerard Stoddard, chairman of the Long Island Coastal Alliance, a property-owners group, believes such lawsuits will only delay government activity.

Mr. Stoddard's group has a wish list that includes fixing the jetty problems at the inlets, building a stockpile of sand to respond to future breaks in the beach quickly and filling in the beach around populated areas. His group has volunteered to pay $3 million to 4 million of Suffolk County's share of the expense.

The Army Corps is currently conducting a feasibility study that will help to determine future construction needs. "The Fire Island piece is the next priority - that is what we are actively initiating," says Gene Brickman, a Corps planner.

The state is also trying to figure out what is the economic and public interest in remedying the erosion problem. "It's not clear yet, what is the level of public investment," says George Stafford, director of coastal resources in New York. An economic study, completed over the next 12 to 18 months, will determine who benefits and how to share the cost. Says Fred Anders, a coastal processing specialist, "It comes down to economics: how much do you want to spend to protect a beach?"

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