Homeowners and business owners turned out on Tuesday morning to air their erosion grievances at the first East Hampton Town Board meeting since the severe December storm, just as the town filed an application for federal relief due to what officials say is more than $4 million in public property damage. Even though that first step would mean low financing loans for private properties, one homeowner announced a lawsuit worth tens of millions of dollars against town, county, state, and federal agencies for what he deemed years of inaction.
Terry Bienstock, who owns a house on Soundview Drive on Culloden Point in Montauk, an area that has suffered severe erosion with some houses in jeopardy of collapsing into Block Island Sound, said his neighbors will join him in his suit.
In the next few weeks, he said, the suit will be brought against the town, the State Department of Environmental Conservation, Suffolk County, and the Army Corps of Engineers – "everybody who has done nothing in the past 25 years," he said. The problems have long stood with the permitting process and codes that prevent certain hard structures from being installed to slow erosion, he said.
Town officials said they understood his pain, and Dominick Stanzione, who led the meeting for Supervisor Bill Wilkinson, who was at his mother's funeral, jokingly asked if the town could join Bienstock instead of be on the other end of the suit.
Town officials – including three who are just starting their second year on the board – vowed they are serious about coastal erosion and finding both short-term and long-term solutions.
Stanzione said the town met Tuesday morning's deadline to file preliminary damage assessment reports with the New York State Office of Emergency Management. It estimates the damages to town property, including beaches in Montauk and Amagansett and the parking lot next to Gosman's, in excess of $4 million.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency will be in town on Wednesday and Thursday to assess the damage. Stanzione said a recording of the meeting, where dozens spoke of their erosion, would be sent the state office of emergency management.
Town officials did not argue with the cause of the erosion on the north-side of Montauk: a jetty to the east of Culloden Point that was installed by the Army Corps of Engineers "stopping the natural flow of sand," Bienstock said.
"I've watch my beach erode some 300 feet over the last 30 years I've been here – 300 feet," he told the board.
Meanwhile on the south-side of Montauk, oceanfront hotels like the and suffered the erosion of their beachfront. Paul Monte, an owner of Gurney's, told the board he incurred $250,000 worth of damage to the beach and the drainage systems that were now exposed.
"Our residents would be thrilled if all they had was $250,000 worth of damage from the storm and the storm last year," Bienstock said. "We're not worried about our beaches. We've lost our beaches." He said he lost 30 feet in the last storm.
Bienstock said that the time for discussion had past. "I ask for one thing. If you cause a problem, you fix it – not talk talk about fixing it, not have meetings, not conversation, not come out and hold my hand."
Jeff Nichol, an owner of Soundview Resort which is made up of 31 cooperatives, which also suffered erosion on the north side said, "I understand there's a lot of players here, but who owns this problem?"
"I think we do," Stanzione replied.
Board member Theresa Quigley said, "If the town doesn't get strong about it, the Army Corps and the DEC don't have any reason to get strong about it either." She said she will look at the town code to look at streamlining the process, making it more homeowner friendly, and the possibility of an evergreen permitting system where permits would already be in place for fragile area in case of an emergency.
Virginia Bennis, who lives on Mulford Lane on Lazy Point, another area hit by severe erosion, said 50 feet of road was lost in the storm. She blamed the gut being widened a few years back for accelerating the erosion. While she said the Soundview Drive gets most of the attention, "I hope you're going to start paying attention to the area now."
Stanzione said, "We're just a week in from the storm and we're still learning of damages that need to be addressed."
Paul Greenwood, the assistant superintendent of the Suffolk County Water Authority, told the board of another problem from the storm – the water mains east of Soundview Drive and on Mulford Lane have been compromised.
Suffolk County Legis. Jay Schneiderman, a lifelong resident of Montauk, said there are solutions to the coastal erosion, pointing to offshore dredging and sand pumps. "We don't have to reinvent the wheel here." He urged the board to apply for the ability to park an ocean dredge offshore. "Let me fight that fight for you with the legislature."