After years of hard work by many, on August 4, the East Hampton Town Board held a public hearing regarding adoption of the important Coastal Assessment and Resiliency Plan, otherwise known as CARP.
Adoption is an important milestone, but much work lies ahead on the road to the 15–30-year implementation, refining the details and figuring out how to turn 70 pages of information, strategy, priorities and goals into tactical, realizable action steps. Much of it will likely be a rather heavy lift, extraordinarily expensive, and require no small number of wrenchingly hard choices. Town Boards of today and the future will need to ask citizens to approve and do difficult things.
I’ve read the draft several times since its May release. As detailed as is this document, to my eye, three issues requiring close attention appear to be under-represented in CARP: rising groundwater levels, the flood absorption capacity of our land, and the many ways Town land-use and zoning code need to be amended with immediacy to become consistent with the articulated challenges and goals.
Three issues requiring close attention appear to be under-represented in CARP: rising groundwater levels, the flood absorption capacity of our land, and the many ways Town land-use and zoning code need to be amended
First, with respect to groundwater. Nearly every time I hear East Hampton Planning Director Jeremy Samuelson speak, he reminds us with urgency that there is a 1:1 ratio between sea level rise and groundwater rise. Yet, currently CARP makes scarcely a mention of rising groundwater, its risks and how we deal with it.
This limited discussion in this plan about groundwater as a critical factor is not necessarily surprising: though scholarly publications address it in depth, it remains mostly absent in mainstream conversation and documentation. While the threats from above -- the dangers of inundation from rising seas and more frequent and intense storms -- seem obvious, the threat from below of groundwater rise is mostly invisible and its effects more pernicious.
I’m just in the process of learning more, but as I understand so far, groundwater rise can potentially devastate coastal communities. And though our CARP plan focuses mostly on shoreline and shoreline-adjacent areas, rising groundwater can become a real problem miles inland.
Higher seas push the water table up, and that creates flooding from below, which can become a regular event during high tides and regular rainfall. It can become a direct and widespread threat to our municipal and private infrastructure. For example, rising ground water and saltwater intrusion can erode roadways from below, can cause foundations to crack or become unstable, can stop onsite septic systems from draining properly, can cause sewers to backflow, can corrode gas lines, and can potentially resurface toxic substances that have been sequestered for years underground and it can contaminate wells and the aquifer. In addition there are the anthropogenic effects on groundwater resources are mainly due to groundwater pumping and the indirect effects of irrigation and land use changes.
Secondly, CARP doesn’t really address a core element of resiliency: the capacity of our land to absorb increased rainfall and floodwaters.
Stating the obvious here, the reason places flood isn’t just because water comes in from rising waterbodies or more frequent storms of greater intensity, but it’s also about how the ground is able to take in and hold that incoming water. Not only does rising ground water constrain absorption, but displacing of and covering up the ground with impervious and semi-permeable surfaces impedes how efficiently land can soak up water.
One recent study I read estimates that as more rural areas urbanize, as is East Hampton, for every percentage point increase in structures, pavement like roads, parking lots and driveways, hardscape like patios and pools or other impervious surfaces that prevent or limit water from flowing into the ground, annual floods increase on average by 3.3%, the researchers found. Ample woodlands and healthy, unimpeded wetlands remain critical to absorbtion of rainfall and inundation events.
These first two issues lead me to a third gap: the plan must address necessary changes to our zoning code and building permit approval procedures.
Thus far, CARP offers a few gentle references to “regulatory changes”: One table indicates “setbacks” and “building regulation” as “accommodation” steps to be taken over the next five years. One of the only specific changes it calls for is to loosen residential height restrictions to accommodate raising houses above defined flood elevations. But that seems far too vague, as it does not bring home the point that it’s not just when and where we retreat from eroding shorelines later, but it is about our scope and scale of building and redeveloping RIGHT NOW.
It is impossible to see what is currently allowable under our zoning code spelled out in Chapter 255 as compatible with either the Town’s declared “state of climate emergency” or a true coastal resiliency priority. If the only answer is to jack 5000+-square-foot houses 15 feet up into the air on stilts, that will create all other kinds of problems.
Our groundwater is displaced, and our absorption potential and flood resilience are undermined unnecessarily every day in East Hampton by the voracious, greedy obsession of speculative developers and real estate brokerages to “max out” construction based on the overly generous coverage allowances currently within Town and Village zoning codes.
Excessively large house footprints, much bigger and way deeper below-ground living space, oversized in-ground pools, and lot-filling hardscape are a problem. Moreover, expansive and constant clearing, grading, filling and sodding, the removal of natural features like woodlands, dune lands and incursion into wetland buffers, and the endless ripping out of natural, native vegetation –all of which are known to be among the most important elements of flood mitigation -- plus insane amounts of irrigation to support water-hogging lawns and ornamental plantings, some that extend right to the borders of waterbodies, are unsustainable.
It is impossible to see what is currently allowable under our zoning code spelled out in Chapter 255 as compatible with either the Town’s declared “state of climate emergency” or a true coastal resiliency priority
The very first and last pages of the CARP document call for “Communications and Consensus-building” including marketing and education campaigns. In other words, it makes clear the need for winning over hearts and minds – for creating the right mindset among East Hampton residents. But when it comes to mindset, marketing is not enough. It is about everything we do now. What we build, where we build, how big, how high and how deep we build today and everyday forward is what signals to people what the Town really believes and symbolizes our priorities.
This means rethinking and reducing allowable house size, building and lot coverages, heights and clearing ratios not just directly along our coastlines, and not just within close proximity to all our shorelines, waterbodies, flood prone and eroding areas, but also more generally across East Hampton. These dimensional allowances need to be adjusted specifically in the context of resiliency imperatives, as they should more broadly in relation to the purpose and intent of the code and the visions and goals of the Town Comprehensive Plan (see especially pages 7 and 8) .
Big houses with their overconsumption of materials and energy and water resources, their degree of structure, hardscape and impervious surfaces, their emissions and effluents, their impact on our important natural features, the loss of vegetation and their landscaping practices are anathema to resiliency and sustainability.
Realistically, can we expect people to embrace the major changes this CARP plan will ask of us, like picking up and moving houses or shifting an entire business district, when every day, every one of us sees the Town, seemingly business as usual, approve and issue permits for building bigger and bigger near our shorelines? For example, can we expect anyone today to stand in that Ditch Plains parking lot, in the shadow of the current construction of a massive soul-crushing house looming over one of our most iconic, most vulnerable spots on the entire CARP map -- and also know that there are three more of these monsters in the pipeline, and dozens more of those germinating all over town -- and then turn around and embody the priorities of this plan?
It is about everything we do now. What we build, where we build, how big, how high and how deep we build today and everyday forward is what signals to people what the Town really believes and symbolizes our priorities.
Among other strategies, CARP calls for is “managed retreat”—a category that includes moving or requiring abandoning, demolishing and redeveloping assets to sites less vulnerable to the twin risks of erosion and inundation. I prefer the concept of “managed alignment” instead, as it includes two components:
Where necessary, remove/relocate existing development out of – and not rebuild storm/flood impaired structures within -- true hazard areas; and
Limit the construction of new development in known hazard, vulnerable and buffer areas.
The first of these two strategies – remove/relocate – can be, to some, contentious, emotional, and shocking and will engender resistance. It’s more likely to happen further into the future, or reactively after a catastrophic weather event. And it’s incredibly expensive and disruptive.
However, the second strategy “limiting” development in key areas is something that has virtually no upfront cost to the town and taxpayers and doesn’t disrupt or take anything away that is already existing. And it can begin to happen immediately. When we talk about “limiting” new construction, core to that is adding rational, necessary restraint to the scope, scale, density, and intensity of what is built.
Though it is structured as a long-range, multi-decade plan, CARP is as much about today as it is about all the tomorrows.