By Danny Schrafel
For some Asharoken residents living on the waterfront, giving public access to private beaches along the shore in exchange for an Army Corps of Engineers project to replenish the battered sand dunes along Asharoken Avenue is a line in the sand that they simply won’t cross.
Residents peppered Mayor Greg Letica with questions about the Army Corps plan during a village board meeting April 7, some of them urging him to find new alternatives to accepting federal dollars – and the regulations – that come along with the sand.
Letica told residents last Tuesday that Army Corps officials said they were “very supportive” of a draft public access plan, submitted by the village in mid-November, containing five points of access. Approval of the plan unlocks the opportunity to receive millions of dollars worth of sand to bolster the dunes on the beach.
The mayor, who said striking a deal with the federal government “may be the only way we’re able to restore this beach,” stressed he does not support public access and is continuing to “fight the fight” on the issue.
“I have to get to an end-point where the residents can make a decision,” Letica said, saying he is seeking the “least intrusive plan we can get” from the Army Corps.
However, he conceded that federal officials are “pretty adamant about” receiving public access in exchange for sand.
Acceptance of the public-access plan is critical to clearing the way for an infrastructure project to nourish and protect Asharoken Beach’s sand dunes. The dunes, along with a sea wall along Asharoken Avenue for which the Army Corps completed repairs in January 2013, are critical to preserving access to Asharoken Avenue, the only access point to Eaton’s Neck.
He said the alternative – widespread damage from another storm like Superstorm Sandy being amplified by a lack of dunes – could be devastating to residents.
“You end up with a situation where you could lose homes, lose the road because the plan is never constructed,” Letica said, warning that such a situation would result in a “radical hit” to Asharoken property values.
Once a draft plan for the project’s scope is submitted to the village by the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation, Letica said he would turn it over to residents. That is expected to come sometime in late April.
The mayor said he is making the case to federal officials that there should be no curb parking allowed at three of the central access points, and that Deputy Mayor Pam Pierce has been tasked with collecting data to bolster that argument that “low recreational use” exists.
But resident Steve Mirabelle, who has lived in a bungalow along the Long Island Sound for 23 years in a home with a private beach, said the gains are not worth the cost.
“I would love people to dump sand, but I wouldn’t do it by giving up my property rights,” he said.
Likening public beach access to giving the public access to his backyard, Mirabelle said he’s fearful that the federal government will gain new controls over how he uses his beachfront property if an agreement is signed.
While he agrees that preserving the integrity of Asharoken Avenue is critical to those living on Eaton’s Neck, asking Sound-side residents to yield property rights is a reach too far.
“It is my yard. It’s my property. It’s what makes my house so valuable,” he said. “It was a little bungalow, a little cape. Its value is the fact that you bought the beach.”
Letica stressed repeatedly that no agreements have been reached, and that he’s continuing to push back against the necessity of a public-access plan, arguing that the preservation of Asharoken Avenue is a sufficient public benefit to warrant federal support.
“They have not proposed anything, not made any deals, not endorsed any plan. They have a fiduciary obligation to investigate the alternative that Army Corps is presenting,” said Village Attorney Bruce Migatz. “If they did not, they would not be doing their job.”
Some residents are pushing Letica to more strongly explore grant opportunities that would allow the village to replenish the sand independently, without being governed by federal regulations.
At the end of the day, Letica said, the waterfront residents of Ashroken essentially have “veto power” on the project.
“The only way this can get done… is if residents who own property on the Long Island Sound side sign an easement allowing this project to be done,” he said. “If enough of the residents don’t want to do it, it’s not going to get done. It’s not me or the board that can force this down anybody’s throats.”