Jetty Problem: The Montauk Inlet and What We Won’t Be Doing About It

I was reading the other day about a new subway system being built in Wuhan, China’s ninth-largest city. It will be 160 miles long, and will feature at one point an industrial park with a skyscraper half again taller than the Empire State Building.

The interesting part of this is that its projected completion time—five years—is exactly the same as the completion time for the two-mile-long Second Avenue Subway (SAS) system, now under construction in Manhattan. When we get the two miles done, they get the 160 miles done, plus a giant skyscraper.

I was put in mind of this story yesterday when I read about the waterfront residents of the Soundview Section of Montauk objecting to some damage apparently caused by the lengthening of some jetties there. There are two stone jetties, and they protect the entrance to Montauk Harbor where the boats come and go. Money was obtained for the job of extending them 10 years ago and the rocks were brought in. I think they were lengthened 20 feet farther into Block Island Sound. It seems that as a result of this, the flow of sand there, which is east to west, has changed. The narrow beach the residents of Soundview enjoyed is hardly there anymore. Floodwaters come on the west side over the dunes and flood the place from time to time. Maybe something else caused this. But it really does look like the jetties. [expand]

People say that here in America, we don’t make anything anymore. They say almost everything we use is made in China, or the Philippines, or Indonesia.

Here is how the jetty problem at Montauk would be handled if it were to come about in a coastal town in China. They’d do a study for a month or two. And then if they found the lengthening of the jetties had diverted the sand flow as many suspect, they would get in a whole lot of machinery and remove the addition in about a week.

Here’s what’s happening in Montauk. A group of Soundview residents filed a lawsuit last January against the Town of East Hampton, Suffolk County, Ruth Noemi Colon, who is the acting Secretary of State for New York, and Joe Martens, the acting commissioner of the State Department of Environmental Conversation, all of whom may or may not have been guilty of extending the jetties and therefore responsible for the damage caused. The lawyer for the Soundview Residents, Jonathan Sinnreich, said at the time that he intended to add the federal government to the lawsuit at a later date.

But now just seven months later, this lawsuit is being amended. It’s only a minor change. But it’s a significant one.

Sinnreich has found that the federal government may not be liable at all, or at least not as much as he originally thought.

It’s been thought for years that the jetties were built in 1936 by the federal government to help Montauk create a sheltered harbor for its fishing boats. Before 1936, they were docked or anchored in the open waters of Fort Pond Bay. Curiously, though this is what was thought to have happened, today the deed to the jetties is held by Town of East Hampton. That’s why the lawsuit is largely against East Hampton. But how did the Town wind up with the jetties if they were federally-built jetties?

It turns out that in 1936 the Feds originally decided NOT to build the jetties. They said they didn’t have the money. But then a group of Montauk fishermen headed up by lobsterman Perry Duryea III, the son of a congressman, went down to Washington, talked to them about how important the Montauk Harbor inlet was to them, how they wanted to grow a big fishing village and make a big industry there and they thus persuaded Congress to make the money available to the Army Corps of Engineers.

So it was the Engineers who did build it. But there was a deal made. Since Washington had originally turned the request down, the deal was that the Town should take responsibility for the maintenance of the jetty and for them to do that, take title to it after the Feds built it. There were other conditions. The Feds should receive a paper holding them harmless for anything that happened at the jetties. And the Feds would have to receive an easement from the Town so any boat could go in and out, not just the ones approved by the Town.

Turns out the Feds did get the easement they wanted, but they never got a release holding them harmless for bad things that might happen there.

So this makes everything more complicated. The recent repairs on the jetty were made at the request sent by the Town of East Hampton to Joe Martens and Ruth Noemi Colon, who work for the State of New York but who have an arrangement with the Feds which would allow the Feds to provide the bulk of the funding to do the work.

What a mess. It’s possible that without the paper to hold the Feds harmless, the entire sale of the inlet to the Town could be null and void. Then what?

I predict that five years from now, the 150-story skyscraper in Wuhan will be topped off, the ribbon will be cut to the 160-mile subway system there, and the Second Avenue Subway in Manhattan will have struck water and been delayed for another year or two.

I also predict that five years from now, nothing whatsoever will be done to remove the extension of the jetties because it will be still wending its way through the courts—with the lawyers making millions—and the residents of Soundview still experiencing further damage to their properties and homes.

The only good thing I can say about this comparison is that here in the USA, Joe Martens and Ruth Noemi Colon will both be protected from financial loss by contracts New York State has with them to keep its employees from harm.

If these two were in China, they’d probably be lined up and shot. [/expand]

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