To adapt to climate change, New York town considers a retreat from the beach

Samantha Fields Aug 26, 2022
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The offices of the Montauk Chamber of Commerce. “Oceanfront is why people come here," said Executive Director Jennifer Fowkes. That oceanfront, however, is threatened by rising sea levels and more intense storms. Samantha Fields/Marketplace

To adapt to climate change, New York town considers a retreat from the beach

Samantha Fields Aug 26, 2022
Heard on:
The offices of the Montauk Chamber of Commerce. “Oceanfront is why people come here," said Executive Director Jennifer Fowkes. That oceanfront, however, is threatened by rising sea levels and more intense storms. Samantha Fields/Marketplace
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Seven days a week, from 9 to 5, the Montauk Chamber of Commerce is open and taking calls. One of the questions they get most often is “Who has oceanfront rooms available this week?” according to Executive Director Jennifer Fowkes. “Oceanfront is why people come here.”

Montauk is the easternmost point in New York state — all the way out at the tip of Long Island. At its widest point, it’s not quite three miles across. The little downtown strip of stores and restaurants is just a couple of blocks from the beach. Everywhere you go in town, you can smell the ocean. In the summer, Montauk’s population swells from about 4,000 year-round residents to roughly 30,000. 

“We’re defined by our geography,” said Jeremy Samuelson, the planning director for the town of East Hampton, which includes Montauk. “It’s what makes it such an appealing community. And it’s what makes us so vulnerable.”

Like cities and towns all along the East and Gulf coasts, East Hampton is grappling with the growing threats posed by climate change — sea-level rise, the prospect of more intense storms, rising groundwater — and trying to figure out how to adapt. 

One of the recommendations in its Coastal Assessment and Resiliency Plan, which the town board is on the verge of adopting, is “managed retreat” — voluntarily relocating homes and businesses in certain low-lying, vulnerable areas to higher ground. That includes parts of downtown Montauk. 

None of the details have been fleshed out yet, but the idea is that downtown Montauk, where most of the hotels and businesses are located, “would get pared down significantly,” said Alison Branco, the climate adaptation director for the Nature Conservancy in New York, who has been advising the town on its plans. 

A beachfront hotel.
One of the hotels on the beach in Montauk that would be moved to higher ground elsewhere in town as part of the managed retreat plan. (Samantha Fields/Marketplace)

“It would be a lot narrower. You might have to do some hardening or raising of the road. But this section of hotels and motels [along the beach] would have to move elsewhere, someplace high and dry, where they could exist for a long period of time.”

That would also give the beach more space to move and change, as sandy beaches are supposed to do, and better buffer the town against sea-level rise and storm surge. 

But it’s a pretty hard sell. Especially in the business community. 

Looking for guidance

“The allure of those hotels is being on the water,” said Paul Monte, whose family owned one of Montauk’s oceanfront resorts for decades. “If we took those hotels and put them in the middle of a field somewhere, they will certainly not have the same draw as they do currently.”

Monte does want the town to get more proactive about planning for climate change; he’s been involved in those efforts for years, including as chair of the beach erosion committee. 

“You always worry that there’s going to be a very serious storm that’s going to take out the whole town,” he said. “But the idea of just taking the entire oceanfront and moving it upstream to a high point just doesn’t make sense to me.”

The exterior of Daunt's Albatross.
Daunt’s Albatross, Leo Daunt’s family’s hotel, is located a block from the beach in Montauk. (Samantha Fields/Marketplace)

It doesn’t make sense to Leo Daunt, either. He runs two businesses a block from the beach — Daunt’s Albatross, a hotel that’s been in his family for three generations, and a restaurant right across the street called Bird on the Roof.

“Nobody in Montauk, none of these businesses are climate deniers,” he said. “Everyone realizes that sea level is rising. Everyone realizes that there is a threat.”

But right now, Daunt and Monte said they feel like there are just too many questions and too few details about what managed retreat would look like and how it would actually work.

“I have asked continually for somebody to tell me or show me how this could make sense financially,” Monte said. “Who has done it before? Where have they done it? And how have they done it?”

Investment and adaptation

But no one has really done it before in the continental United States. Cities and towns in other states are also talking about managed retreat, but there isn’t a comparable community that Montauk can look to to see how it played out. 

“As much as it’s nice to be the leader in something like this, when you’re talking about people’s livelihoods and the future of a community, you don’t really want to be a guinea pig,” Monte said.  

At this point, the Chamber of Commerce, which represents many business owners in town, is asking for an in-depth economic study of how managed retreat would work and how it would affect local business owners and the community, which relies heavily on summer tourism. 

Many of those hotels along the beach charge many hundreds of dollars, sometimes over $1,000, a night. And tourists who stay in those hotels eat and shop at many of the local restaurants and businesses.

The chamber is also advocating for the town to focus more on other adaptation options — such as changing building codes to maybe allow for hotels and other businesses to be raised instead of relocated, and more investment in replenishing the beaches.

A wave crashes against the shore of a porch in Montauk.
A wave whipped by Superstorm Sandy crashes against the Montauk shore in October 2012. (Sheila Rooney/Getty Images)

That is already happening to some degree. A few years after Superstorm Sandy hit in 2012 and caused severe erosion along the coast, the Army Corps of Engineers came in and installed Geotube bags in Montauk to shore up the dunes.

“It’s basically like a sandbag, only a giant version, like the size of a bus,” said Branco at the Nature Conservancy. “Those are designed to sort of stabilize the beach. It’s much like a seawall buried under the sand.”

East Hampton has also been spending hundreds of thousands a year, sometimes up to $1 million, to put sand back on the beaches.

But, Branco said, these are short-term solutions. Long term, as the sea level rises, hardening the shoreline will only worsen the erosion. Eventually, that could result in hotels being situated, effectively, on the edge of a cliff over the water, with no accessible or usable beach in front of them. 

“Beaches and sand dunes and wetlands and all of those types of natural shorelines are fairly resilient to something like sea-level rise, if they’re allowed to function the way they naturally do,” she said. 

“So if we back up, make some space, allow the sand dunes to be sandy, big storms will wash them away. Then in the summer, a lot of that same sand will get washed back up again. And it will move and change all the time, but there will always be a sandy beach here. But if we try to hold it still, the way we drew the shoreline on the map however many hundred years ago, we’re going to risk losing the beach entirely.”

“Different versions of the future”

In Montauk, both Branco and Jeremy Samuelson, the planning director, said it feels like attitudes are shifting, albeit slowly. When they talk about managed retreat in meetings now, Samuelson said, “it’s a different reaction than we had five years ago or 10 years ago.”

People still bristle, especially at the term “managed retreat,” but they’re more open to talking about it than they used to be. Samuelson has also come to appreciate more just how much people are invested in their businesses and their town — and not just financially. There are many families, like Monte’s and Daunt’s, that have been in Montauk and passed down homes and businesses for generations. 

“I think one of the dangers here is we can underestimate the extent to which this is a very personal and very emotional journey that we’re asking people to go on,” Samuelson said. “If we don’t treat that with the respect that it is due, then we won’t find genuine partnership, and we will not succeed.”

Ultimately, both Samuelson and Branco believe that succeeding in bringing the community around to the idea of managed retreat will be critical to Montauk’s future. Branco is optimistic that people will get there. 

“Especially when they realize that the alternative is not everything gets to stay the way it is,” she said.

“I think that’s the thing that people need to realize and have a hard time realizing: There is no future where everything stays exactly like it is today. Thanks to climate change, that’s just not an option anymore. So really, what we have to look at is the different versions of the future. And do we make it what we want? Or do we wait and see what the water decides for us?”

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