Southold trustees request independent group study of coastal resiliency

The early January nor’easter that battered the North Fork not only ate away at Long Island Sound beaches, but ripped up waterfront structures, including as a $50,000 staircase along the bluff in Peconic that had stood for only 90 days. 

The staircase, built along a roughly 42-foot bluff, received its final inspection in December after a lengthy permitting process involving multiple agencies and was built in 30 days, only to be wiped out a month later by the winter storm.

“It was the perfect storm,” builder Richard Principi said. The deep freeze, combined with ice and snow at high tide, took out the toe of the bluff, acting like a glacier, he said.

Another winter nor’easter pounded the North Fork shoreline Friday with wind gusts up to 65 mph. Waves crashed against houses in the same neighborhood Friday afternoon, once again showing the area’s vulnerability.

Later that month, Southold Town’s Board of Trustees presented the Town Board with a letter recommending the formation of an independent group to develop a comprehensive coastal resiliency policy and used Mr. Principi’s staircase as an example. If storms are more frequent and severe and the Trustees approve the rebuilding of a damaged structure, the letter asked, are they also committed to multiple rebuilds down the road?

“At what point do we recognize Mother Nature sets the parameters of the discussion?” the Trustees wrote.

“It gives you an idea that even applying best management practices and current state-of-the-art construction in and around our bluffs and beaches, that the intensity of this particular storm and in general what we’ve been seeing, our codes and our ability to catch up with it aren’t working,” Trustees vice president John Bredemeyer said, citing the staircase. He noted that the Trustees are not a legislative body, so any overarching environmental policy is ultimately up to the Town Board.

Builder Richard Principi is working to salvage what he can from the damaged structure while working on an emergency repair plan with the Southold Town Board of Trustees. (Credit: Courtesy photo)

Trustee president Mike Domino said it demonstrates that the impacts of climate change are “here and now.”

Mr. Principi, whose family owned and has sold parcels at the Soundfront subdivision in Peconic where the staircase was wiped out, said changes to the bluff have become more noticeable in recent years.

“To be quite frank, I mean, we’ve owned that property probably for almost 50 years and up until recently, the bluff really kind of held its own,” Mr. Principi said. He is working on salvaging parts of the stairs and working with the

Trustees on a plan to rebuild it on an emergency basis.

One-third of the Trustees’ February agenda for wetland amendments or coastal erosion permits involved applications related to storm damage, Mr. Domino said, along with two requests for jetty or groin extensions initiated by sea level rise.

“That, to my knowledge, has not happened before,” he said.

For now, emergency permits have been dribbling in, possibly because, given the time of year, seasonal property owners have yet to return and assess damage, Mr. Bredemeyer said.

As storms intensify and sea level rise persists, it’s expected that “property owners will attempt to protect their waterfront investment until it becomes economically untenable,” Mr. Domino said.

The Trustees see the impact of climate change and sea level rise on a day-to-day basis, Mr. Domino said.

“The Trustees want to partner with other members of a broad-based commission tasked with answering the question; where do we want to be 20 years from now with regard to climate change and sea level rise?”

Photo caption:Winter storm Grayson tore up this staircase along a 42-foot bluff in Peconic. The stairs had only been completed about 90 days earlier. (Credit: Courtesy photo)

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