Projects Update: Fire Island Beach Rebuilding to Restart Next Fall

By Timothy BolgerFire Island, New York – Fire Island beach replenishment work ground to a halt as of April, when the endangered Piping Plovers’ mating season hatched, meaning the shorefront project won’t restart until this fall, officials said.Of the three phases of the Fire Island Inlet to Moriches Inlet (FIMI) project, the Smith Point County Park leg was nearly half completed, the Robert Moses State Park portion didn’t start this winter as expected and the middle, residential portion remains in the planning stages. A separate project to dredge Watch Hill and Sailors Haven was also left uncompleted because the Great South Bay froze over this winter.”The intent is to resume this fall, but that depends upon the arrival of the contractors’ equipment,” said Chris Gardner, spokesman for the U.S. Army Corp. of Engineers, the lead agency on the projects.The $207 million FIMI project is slated to rebuild dunes and beach along the oceanfront of about half the 32-mile island. The storm mitigation plan was spun off from the $700 million Fire Island Inlet to Montauk Point (FIMP) project, which is expected to follow later. The separate, $2.9 million Watch Hill dredging project is routine maintenance to keep boating channels open, but contributes to FIMI’s overall goal to rebuild the beach—and all three are funded with federal Sandy aid.H&L Contracting nearly completed dredging the Watch Hill channel, but ice delayed the company from starting work in the Sailors Haven channel and in the marinas before the birds started breeding, Gardner said. The work will eventually bring both channels to a width of 100 feet and depth of 6 feet at mean low tide.James Dunphy, facility manager for the Fire Island National Seashore, said that sand dredged from Watch Hill was placed on the beach in front of the six easternmost homes in Davis Park before the bay froze over in January. When the work restarted in late March through the end of last month, sand was placed there again after winter storms washed away the previous deposit, he added. Dredging equipment left on the beach will be removed once the ocean is calm, he noted.However work on the bayside is still moving forward. Stout Construction, funded by the Federal Highway Administration, will undertake a $1,087,000 emergency relief upgrade to the Sailors Haven marina. As a result the marina will be closed to private boaters through July 20, 2015. Ferry service from Sayville to Sailors Haven will still continue, with occasional interruptions to the regular schedule anticipated.Dutra Dredging, which started its nearly $48 million contract to rebuild beaches, dunes and Piping Plover habitat at Smith Point County Park last fall, got the most work done on FI so far. It restored 100 acres of bird habitat and pumped more than 1 million cubic yards of sand on the beach, starting from the east and heading west, Gardner said. That job has another 1.5 million cubic yards of sand to go this fall.On the opposite end of the island, dredges didn’t arrive in time before the work window closed for Great Lakes Dredge & Dock Corporation, which was awarded a $23 million contract this winter, to begin pumping 1 million cubic yards of the sand and rebuild 13-foot dunes at Robert Moses State Park and the Fire Island Lighthouse. That project is expected to push east into the communities.As for the third leg of FIMI, the contract could be awarded as soon as this fall, according to Gil Anderson, commissioner of the Suffolk County Department of Public Works. The agency is performing surveys and appraisals in advance of securing easements from oceanfront property owners to legally allow workers to bring sand. The latest development included news that the Army Corp. has agreed to pay for structures to be moved back on some of the 41 oceanfront properties in the way of the new dune that builders have planned.”It could be as high as half of those,” estimated Anderson.The biggest question remains which of the remaining seaside property owners who can’t relocate will refuse the government’s buyout offers and wind up fighting condemnation. If homeowners between Kismet and Fair Harbor reportedly balking at granting easements are any indication, property owners that face losing entire parcels may follow suit. During the Saltaire village board meeting in New York City on April 1, Mayor Robert Cox said that there may be several such potential easement condemnation cases bubbling up.”In exchange for receiving this dune sand and giving up the easement, the property owners have been advised by the Army Corp. and Suffolk County—who’s actually the party that will be acquiring the easement—a certain value that they attribute to the loss of their property rights,” Cox said. “For the most part I think that is going smoothly, but there are one or two folks who are not happy with what either the value is, or what they think the value is worth. In those cases there will probably be an eminent domain proceeding brought against them by Suffolk County, which means the county will move in court to take title to that property and then there will be a determination after the fact as to what the proper value would be.”Aside from those legal hiccups, Cox maintained a positive outlook for the work starting again this fall.”We’re looking for the FIMP project to resume in the next off season,” he said. “It looks like the stars are aligned for that to actually happen.”Dredging apparatus being transported on the Great South Bay to open the navigational channel at Watch Hill. (Photograph courtesy NPS / Fire Island National Seashore, December 2014.) In addition to waterborne vessels, trucks are part of the process too. In this case they were hauling sand excavated as part of the habitat improvement work, then used toward dune and berm construction. (Photo courtesy United States Army Corps of Engineers, January 2015.)Construction at Sailors Haven marina is now underway. (Photograph courtesy NPS / Fire Island National Seashore, April 2015.)