Rising sea levels, climate change dominates discussion of comp plan

TIM KELLY FILE PHOTO | Environmentalists warn that severe flooding similar to superstorm Sandy levels, which left homes on Kimogenor Point in New Suffolk awash, could be more common in the future.

The land resources section of Southold’s new comprehensive plan covers everything from protecting historic trees to destroying phragmites to rebuilding salt marshes and conserving energy.

But it was a discussion of rising sea levels and the need for a way to deal just with climate change that dominated the discussion at a public information session on the draft chapter, held at the Peconic Lane Community Center this week.

The discussion began to turn toward climate change at the mention of “alternative shoreline hardening” methods in the chapter.

Principal planner Mark Terry, who drafted much of the plan, said the draft was referring to alternative materials, such as caged rocks, known as rip-rap, instead of traditional wood or other bulkheads.

“We know we need to harden the shoreline,” he said. “What materials are most effective?”

The responses given were varied.

“Caged rip-rap on the Sound doesn’t work,” said Ron McGreevy of Mattituck.

“Hardening systems prevent terrestrial land erosion into the bay,” said agricultural committee chairman Chris Baiz. Stronger bulkheads during Sandy would have prevented further erosion during the 36 hours in which tides were five feet or more above normal, he added.

Some environmentalists say such structures are at best stop-gap measures.

“You must realize there’s no defense against rising sea level,” said Doug Hardy of Southold, a retired marine biologist who has studied climate change and is a member of the town’s conservation advisory council. Mr. Hardy said sea levels in 2080 could be 2 1/2 feet above current levels.

“It’s not going to get better,” he said. “I hate to be the messenger of gloom.”

Lillian Ball of Southold said she hopes the town examines “rolling easements,” which would allow land swallowed by the tide to revert to public property.

“When something is destroyed, at what point do you abandon it?” she asked.

North Fork Environmental Council president Bill Toedter said there’s a need to further discuss the role salt marshes play in protecting the coastline. “We need to rebuild them to prevent the effects of tidal insurgence,” he said.

Ms. Ball agreed that restoration of salt marshes could protect the coastline against climate change.

“There needs to be room for the marshes to move,” she said. “They will do that if there’s enough room for them.”

Jennifer Hartnagel, an environmental advocate with the Group for the East End, suggested that climate change alone could easily be the subject of an entire chapter of the comprehensive plan.

Mr. Terry said the planners thought long and hard about how best to incorporate climate change into the plan, and had decided that it was such a dominant influence that it should play a role in many chapters, including the upcoming land use and emergency management sections.

Mr. Hardy suggested that the town will need a plan just to address climate change.

“It’s going to dominate your plan,” he said. “This has never happened to a civilized society before.”

Planning Director Heather Lanza said the draft chapter calls for the town to create a “coastal resilience plan” to address climate change.

Ms. Ball added that sea level rise predictions made by the state in 2010, which were used to prepare the chapter, have been called into question since superstorm Sandy.

Mr. Terry agreed that there will be changes due to the storm, particularly with regard to flood insurance, which he said FEMA will likely no longer subsidize in the future.

“They’re going to phase that out completely over the next five years,” said Planning Board chairman Don Wilcenski. “If your policy is $2,000 this year, in five years it’s going to be $12,000. It’s not sustainable.”

Jack McGreevy, who also sits on the town’s conservation advisory council, which inspects properties before wetland permits are issued by the Town Trustees, said the group has seen consistent evidence of rising sea levels.

He said aging septic systems near the water will create more damage to the marine environment as climate change progresses.

“Rising sea levels are a big problem right now,” he said. “We should put together a comprehensive plan for that now. Do we need to buy properties back from homeowners?”

A smattering of other environmental issues was also part of the discussion.

Ms. Hartnagel urged the planners to more strongly urge the town to adopt new energy efficient building standards.

“Southold is one of only two to three towns on Long Island that is not part of the Energy Star Program,” she said.

Planners said the Town Board would need to adopt those changes.

Invasive species were another hot discussion.

Mr. Baiz has it in for two invasive species: Norway maples and Norway rats.

In the chapter, planners said trees such as native oaks and American beeches should be planted to replace diseased Norway maples, which are on the state’s invasive species lists.

No one other than Mr. Baiz seemed to want to talk about Norway rats.

“What is this business with Norway? They keep giving us their rejects. It’s a nice place,” joked Ms. Ball.

Mr. Toedter added that he would like the chapter to mention that boat owners should clean the axles of their boat trailers to avoid bringing invasive species from one body of water body another.

The full text of the chapter is available at

[email protected]

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