Article in NY Times on Montauk Lighthouse
Save the Lighthouse: Move It
Published: November 19, 2006
The ground around the Montauk Point Lighthouse is crumbling, and if nothing is done, a powerful storm may someday rob us of a historical jewel and beloved tourist attraction, a monument that dates to George Washington’s day and is perhaps the greatest symbol of Long Island, if you don’t count the Big Duck of Flanders.
As Corey Kilgannon of The Times revealed last week, the United States Army Corps of Engineers has a plan. The plan involves boulders, to be placed in a wall, 840 feet long and 40 feet thick, like a dental cap on Long Island’s easternmost incisor. The project would cost $14 million and protect the lighthouse from the kind of giant storm that occurs once every 73 years.
The plan was moving along until strong objections were raised by the Surfrider Foundation, an environmental advocacy group, speaking on behalf of members who cluster under the lighthouse at a famed surfing spot called Alamo. The group conducted a study and concluded that all those boulders would ruin the waves at Alamo and possibly another spot nearby.
This would be a catastrophe for surfers, who flock to Montauk from all over the world. The group has offered an alternative: leave Montauk Point alone and move the lighthouse to higher ground, 800 feet away, a job estimated to cost $27 million.
The Corps and its local allies say that moving the lighthouse would be too expensive, too difficult, maybe impossible.
It is beyond our ability to say which side’s science is the more defensible. But it seems entirely reasonable, if not painfully obvious, to say that the Surfrider plan sounds fundamentally better than that of the Corps, which reflects a dated, discredited philosophy and sends exactly the wrong message about how to deal with coastal erosion.
Bitter experience up and down the Atlantic coast has proved repeatedly that shore hardening, as the tactic is known, can be a short-sighted, wasteful strategy that meddles in natural processes and often makes erosion worse. It is the general and inexorable habit of sand in this region to move from east to west. Trap the sand on this beach and you starve that one. Yes, you can dump ever more boulders and sand on a problem. It gives the engineers something to do and allows
politicians to leave problems to future budget periods.
The victories, however, are always short-term. We also find dubious the claim that moving the lighthouse is impossible, given all the other historic lighthouses — on Block Island and on Cape Hatteras and Cape Cod — that have been shifted successfully. Add global warming and rising sea levels to this equation, and the Surfrider argument becomes powerful, if not compelling.
The best argument for moving the lighthouse to high ground is that it takes the problem forever out of the realm of stopgap solutions and disputed erosion studies. It benefits everyone. It gives us all the luxury of being able to forget about stopping the ocean ever again. We should save the lighthouse, but we should save it only once.