National News

City Studied Rockaway Erosion, Found No Issue. Then It Closed the Beach.

Posted May 25, 2018 6:19 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — Senior officials in Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration have known for at least a year that the sands of Rockaway Beach were swiftly washing away. They heard about it at a town-hall meeting and in City Council hearings. They conducted a $200,000 study.

“We see the erosion; we’re not blind,” a top Parks Department official said last June, as residents of the beach-centered community in southern Queens were raising concern over their shoreline.

The study results came back in November: Despite obvious erosion, the beach — which had been replenished at the start of the mayor’s first term — and its dunes were determined to be “wider than at almost any time in the last 100 years.”

So the city did not act.

Now, days before the start of beach season, city officials have dropped a bombshell on beachgoers and business owners: A half-mile stretch of one of New York’s most popular and transit-accessible stretches of shoreline would not open for the season on Saturday. From Beach 91st Street to Beach 102nd Street, the beach would be off-limits and would likely remain so for years.

“There just isn’t enough space to operate the beach,” Liam Kavanaugh, the first deputy commissioner at the Parks Department, said in an interview this week. He called the closed section an “erosional hot spot” and said the city has battled it for years, before problems caused by Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

How the Rockaways got to this point is a story of inaction and finger-pointing between New York City officials and the Army Corps of Engineers, whose mission includes reducing risk in coastal areas and which has played a large role in restoring the region’s coastline after Hurricane Sandy.

Long before Sandy hit, beach erosion in the Rockaways had been a continuing concern; a federal study of additional storm protections for the area, including the possibility of more stone groynes — jetty-like structures that are perpendicular to shore and trap sand — was ordered in 2003 but was delayed for years because of lack of funding.

After the hurricane, federal funds freed up. In 2014, the Army Corps deposited about 3.5 million cubic yards of sand along the beachfront; two years later, it released a new draft report for the area.

Things appeared to be on the upswing, as de Blasio demonstrated his interest in bolstering the Rockaways in other ways. A new ferry line brings towel-toting hordes from Manhattan and Brooklyn to the thin peninsula’s beaches. The mayor has visited the Rockaways to tout its revitalization in two of the last three years in advance of the start of the summer season.

But many have noticed the retreating sands; some accuse the Army Corps of dragging its feet in the Rockaways while helping wealthier beach communities on Long Island and elsewhere.

At a town-hall meeting in the Rockaways in December, de Blasio heard from residents who were concerned about the beach erosion and vowed to follow up with the Army Corps of Engineers. The mayor did so in January, urging the Army Corps’ commanding general to speed up the timeline for building new stone groynes, strengthening the dunes and adding new sand in the Rockaways, a project that is slated to begin after the 2019 beach season.

“I said we need to come to a vision together,” de Blasio said Wednesday at an unrelated news conference. “We are absolutely convinced that there’s nothing we can do on our own that will have a lasting impact.”

A spokesman for the Army Corps, Michael Embrich, said in a statement that the beaches were designed “for flood-risk reduction to provide protection for the communities,” adding that they “performed well during the last storm season in the face of four nor’easters.”

Recreational use, Embrich said, is the jurisdiction of the city. The subject came up again at a City Council hearing last month concerning the Park Department’s budget. “I need sand in Rockaway,” Councilman Eric Ulrich, a Republican, said then.

“We agree that there is sand needed at specific parts of the beach in Rockaway,” Kavanaugh replied, but he said it would not be prudent for the city to spend its own money to dump sand into the ocean.

City officials say the severe series of winter storms that buffeted the coastline this year are the reason the beaches experienced worse-than-expected erosion after their study had found a robust beachfront.

All the while, residents of the Rockaways watched as the sands eroded in plain view of one of the busiest sections of the beach.

In the interview, Kavanaugh estimated that about 250,000 cubic yards of sand might be necessary to replenish the problematic section, at a possible cost of $10 million, but he cautioned that the city had not done a formal estimate of how much it would cost.

Temporary fencing, erected this spring, blocks off entrances to the beach — although in many sections it has been cut, rolled up or pushed to the side. Sunbathers abound, squeezed up near the dunes during high tide Wednesday afternoon.

In the areas where groynes are present, there has been less erosion. But in the section without them, the sands washed away.

“Trains stop here; the buses — this is considered the middle of the beach,” said Fred Catapano, 74, who lounged in a blue beach chair in the Wednesday sun on a closed section of beach. “They’re trying to take my favorite spot away from us.”

His 79-year-old brother, Joe, sat nodding next to him; for 40 years they have been coming from nearby Howard Beach to sunbathe. On Saturday, Parks Department officers will be directed to keep them, and others, off the sand.

Closing the beach was a decision made for safety reasons, de Blasio said at the news conference, adding that it had come so late because “we were hoping against hope we could find another outcome.”

Rep. Gregory W. Meeks, a Democrat who represents the area, faulted the city for poor communication that he said had prevented local and federal officials from working together to find a way to open the entire beach. “We could have been talking about it,” he said, and possibly “found some money.”

The local economy in Rockaway Beach is seasonal, a three-month bastion of beach culture a train ride from Times Square. At the pastel-painted concessions at Beach 97th Street, Jordan Wolff, 29, said she decided to open a “surf and turf shack” this year, her first foray into business ownership. She had no warning from the city, to whom her rent ultimately goes.

“I would have taken that into account,” said Wolff, who like the others who rent beachfront concessions from the city were told about the beach changes Monday, just before it was announced publicly. “It’s not a good year to open a business.” Along the boardwalk Wednesday, a new wooden fence marked “temporarily closed” blocked an otherwise unobstructed view of the water from the picnic tables outside the Low Tide Bar.

Its owner, Michael Powers, 38, talked of business considerations — “our entertainment is booked already” — and waxed philosophical about the notion of owning a stretch of beach or barring city residents from the waters. “It belongs to the people,” he said.

One possible solution that he shared with the Parks Department earlier in the day: Allow surfers like himself to extend their narrow space into the closed section — since lifeguards do not watch the surfers anyway — and create a large surfing beach that would be a draw even if the beach is going to be closed to swimmers for years. (Surfing is already permitted from Beach 87th to Beach 92nd Streets, just east of the closed area.) A parks official said the idea was being considered.

In the meantime, Powers said, “we’re going business as usual.”