March 2001 South Shore Estuary Reserve Excludes FIA

The proposed Comprehensive Management Plan (CMP) for Long Island’s south shore estuary is disappointing to those who hoped it would provide a blueprint for improved management practices. Instead, the plan simply identifies areas of concern that were already known to localities well before the South Shore Estuary Reserve (SSER) Advisory Council began its work. By seeming to promise assistance to localities that it was not prepared to deliver, the Council may have actually impeded some local work from going forward.

This was pointed out by Assemblyman Thomas Barraga, who, according to Newsday, voted against the original legislation. Noting that municipalities would not be required to take action on the Council recommendations, Mr. Barraga noted, “The people elected to do this job don’t have to. They can sit back and say, ‘We have this council and they’re studying it and we’re going to wait.’” (“Legislation Gives Boost to South Shore Estuary,” Newsday, August 2, 1993.) In the same article, Assemblyman I. William Bianchi said local action wasn’t needed. “If the Council decides on a course of action, public pressure or further legislation could ensure that municipalities act.” (Id.)

That communities need not act on the Council’s findings was emphasized by Jeff Fullmer, of Citizens Campaign for the Environment and chair of the SSER’s Citizens Advisory Committee (CAC): “There is no legal requirement but a commitment has been made on the part of the developers of the plan,” he said. (“Next on Preservation Agenda: South Shore,”Newsday March 1, 2001). In other words, the Legislature turned over to a group of largely self-selected special interests authority to “plan” for the future of one of the region’s most significant estuaries. Assemblyman Barraga may find that, by “sitting back,” local governments may have lost some ability to apply their own solutions to unique local problems. Action could be impeded by the need to “include best management practices,” “implement Agricultural Environmental Management,” or “develop action plans,” whatever those phrases are decided to mean.

Finally, § 963 of the original bill designated the Long Island Regional Planning Board as the planning entity that would “assist the Council in conducting research and developing the plan.” In a later version the authority to name a planning entity was given to the Secretary of State. There is no indication that any planning entity was ever named. Thus all the “planning” was done from Albany, contributing to the debate that has long simmered as to where planning for Long Island’s coastline should be located. (See the discussion in Heikoff, J., The Politics of Shore Erosion: Westhampton Beach, Ann Arbor Science Publishers, 1976, p. 145ff.)

The foregoing are planning concerns that FIA is not really equipped to comment on. The Association can comment, however, on the Council’s deliberate refusal to include the Association, not to mention the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, in its deliberations. To address the latter failure first, the Corps of Engineers is the most knowledgeable of any government agency when it comes to matters affecting the state’s waterways. It maintains, for example, the federal Intra-Coastal Waterway that runs through the estuary, it is responsible for the maintenance of most of the inlets that connect the estuary with the Atlantic Ocean, it annually spends millions of dollars on shore protection projects that vitally affect the estuary, and it spends millions more on environmental and other studies that are wholly or mainly concerned with the estuary. Indeed, it was the review of these studies by environmental consultants that made up the bulk of the Council’s activity.

Further, the Corps has not only shown specific interest in the estuary but is in a position to channel federal funds to address some of its key environmental issues. As a result of strong interest shown by Congressman Rick Lazio (NY-2nd),

Congress approved and funded a program for environmental enhancement of Long Island’s south shore embayments as part of the Corps’s reformulation of its Fire Island Inlet to Montauk Point Hurricane Protection and Storm Damage Reduction Project. This program, which is of vast potential benefit to the estuary, is not even mentioned in the CMP. The systematic exclusion of the Corps of Engineers from the Council’s deliberations demonstrates that the effort was not intended to be a serious look at the estuary’s environmental problems.

The Fire Island Association’s (FIA) interest in the Draft CMP arises from the fact that it represents the interests of almost 4,000 property and business owners in the only 17 communities that are wholly within the Reserve study area. It was also excluded from a seat at the Council table, despite persistent pleas to be included. That exclusion was not an oversight. The first version of the bill establishing the Long Island South Shore reserve (S. 4302-A; A. 7071-A, March 26, 1991) specified that “the Fire Island civic association” was among the list of entities from which the county executive was to name Council members (§ 964).

The decision to remove FIA was made, apparently, at the behest of the environment organizations who would direct much of the Council’s path or inquiry. After the first version of the bill clearly included FIA, later ones relegated FIA to the Citizens Advisory Committee (CAC). At the same time, the Great South Bay Audubon Society, the Nature Conservancy, and “a regional environmental organization” were to be seated at the Council table. When the Nature Conservancy declined to serve; FIA’s petition to do so in its stead was rebuffed, despite letters of endorsement from the Supervisors of Babylon and Islip, Assemblyman Paul Harenberg and Assemblywoman Debra Mazzarelli. It is possible that FIA’s active participation on the Governor’s Coastal Erosion Task Force may have convinced some that it would be a disruptive force on the Council. But robust debate is a hallmark of true consensus. Exclusion, and relegation of a major interest group to a minor role, shows an unwillingness to deal with more than the simplest problems.

The CAC, meanwhile, was quickly transformed into the Council’s public relations arm, providing information from the Council to the public rather than from the public to the Council, as the Legislature presumably intended. As noted, the chair of CAC, Jeffrey Fullmer, is employed by the Citizens’ Campaign for the Environment. That organization soon was on the Department of State payroll, carrying out the “public communications effort” with newsletters, film strips, manning an SSER booth at community events, etc. The first issue of the newsletter, Long Island’s South Shore Estuary News, Spring 1996, is a transparent effort to convince the public that it was they, not the Department of State planners, that wanted the SSER created. The importance of the estuary is set forth in terms suggesting a groundswell of opinion in favor of creating it: “New Yorkers knew…,” “Yet people also knew … ,” “the citizens agreed …,” “They held a common vision … .” In fact, the need for the SSER was determined by Albany planners; the task of the CAC was to convince the citizens otherwise.

Excluding Fire Island interests from the Council table meant that an important perspective was lost. Islanders’ most pronounced concern, of course, is with the effects of coastal erosion. But this is, or should have been, of extreme importance to the Council as well. In his cover letter to the Executive Summary of the draft CMP, Governor Pataki notes that the estuary is “formed by a barrier island along the Atlantic Ocean.” But his letter – and the Executive Summary – makes no further reference to the fact that, without the barrier, there is no estuary. Defining the southern boundary of its study area as “mean high water” on the barrier island can only be considered a leap of logic by the Council. Supposed drainage from the Fire Island communities was thus included in the study but not the all important beach and dune system that makes the estuary possible.

Again, ignoring beach erosion was not an oversight. In the June 1994 Public Scoping Document, after a discussion of erosion, the following statement appears: “The [CMP] will not address ocean-coastal processes until the extensive study currently underway by the Coastal Erosion Task Force has been completed. At that time, the Council will determine the relevance of [this] work to the SSER plan.” (p. 18) No such determination was made. At a meeting of the Council, FIA questioned the logic of this decision in the public comment period. (It is notable that the public views were restricted to the last fifteen minutes of Council meeting agendas, which often went for well over two hours.) To the question of whether the Task Force recommendations would become recommendations of the Council, Director Stafford noted that no decision had been reached on that question. Nor was it ever. Yet the state proposes to spend $100 million over a five year period on an estuary protected by a fragile barrier island on whose maintenance the Governor’s budget for FY 01-02 proposes to spend nothing. When this was brought to the attention of the Council at the September 22, 1999 Point Lookout meeting, no reference to the observation appeared in the Council’s minutes, even though a printed version of FIA’s comments were presented.

Other nettlesome barrier island problems such as bayside erosion, for example, were also ignored. Lest it be concluded that the Council members were more concerned with other things, it is important to note that virtually no new study of estuary problems were undertaken in the CMP drafting process. The only scientific research involved had been completed by other agencies and merely assembled in “literature surveys” by the Council’s numerous consultants. What was clearly demonstrated was that the agency in charge of the activity, the Department of State’s Coastal Resources Division, lacks the needed in-house expertise in determining the key issues; it therefore does not know where to place priorities. By relying heavily on the views of local chapters of environment organizations, while excluding those whose views may have been different, it was able to complete a series of feel good sessions without making a meaningful contribution to the problems of Great South Bay.

It is the view of the Fire Island Association that this is yet another demonstration of the need to place coastal matters entirely under the Department of Environmental Conservation, where it is in most other states, and relocate the division to Long Island.

The opportunity to gain federal funds for local dissemination has become a motivating force in many states’ efforts to create “Estuary Reserves.” The national Estuary Protection Program has already placed significant sums at the disposal of the Peconic Bay and Long Island Sound Estuaries and perhaps it was inevitable that a south shore estuary reserve would be created as well. But local planners and municipal governments should be aware that community control is largely abandoned to local environmental groups and academics who are not politically responsible to the voters. That may or may not be a good thing; but people should know about it.

In conclusion, the Fire Island Association regrets that the south shore estuary, and especially the barrier island that creates and defines it, were not better served by the Council’s efforts.