As a March storm lashed Shelter Island with wind-driven rain, John Needham noted an ominous sight — water lapping at his shop door at Coecles Harbor Marina.
Mr. Needham, who has spent almost his whole working life on the harbor, had an immediate thought; “It’s in all of our interests that protection is maintained.”
He was speaking about Reel Point — that spit of land jutting from the southern tip of Big Ram Island, a natural barrier that once guarded Coecles Harbor and the homes and businesses that line its shore from high seas and destructive storms.
“I was shocked at how much material washed away so fast,” Mr. Needham said, referring to the current condition of Reel Point. Now the area is threatened — as it has been in the recent past — by unimpeded waves moving westward from Point Judith, Rhode Island, gathering strength across 40 nautical miles before making a landfall on Shelter Island.
In June and October 2013 and again in November 2016, solid materials were dredged and distributed by town workers to shore up the beach, so Reel Point could continue to protect businesses and homeowners from powerful waves and rising water.
Rather than spend more money dredging and trying to shore up Reel Point again, only to have it erode after a few storms, the town and The Peconic Land Trust, which share ownership, recently spent more than $40,000 on consultant’s fees for an analysis. First Coastal Corporation of Westhampton Beach and LKB Consulting Engineers of Syossett were contracted to investigate the situation, write a report and suggest plans of action.
The consultants have produced a comprehensive document outlining the history and makeup of Reel Point and steps they advise that, if taken, will provide a long-range solution.
One of the report’s conclusions is eye-opening. “Continued over-wash and a breach of Reel Point has the potential to result in significant economic and environmental impacts,” the report states. Sustaining Reel Point, it continues, “is vital to the economic and ecological well-being of the entire
Coecles Harbor region and even the Town of Shelter Island itself.”
Businesses in the area that could be affected if Reel Point fails include Coecles Harbor Marina, Clark’s Marina, The Ram’s Head Inn and CH Marine Yacht Builders. Failure could also destroy private properties on Ram Island and the new luxury residential development being built on the former St. Gabriel’s site.
The estimation of cost, still fluid, for one long-term plan of remediation, is in the tens of millions of dollars.
Failure to take corrective action, the report concludes, could result in:
• Loss of life
• The need for increased channel maintenance dredging
• Reduction or loss of protective natural beaches and dunes
• Loss of navigability in adjacent inlets sharing the same water body as the breach
• Loss of property from flooding, wave attack and erosion
• Loss of access to property
• Immediate loss of habitat
• Unwanted increase in salinity and water levels.
Dredging has taken place six times since the mid-1960s around Reel Point, according to Suffolk County records. The last three were in June and October 2013 and November 2016.
Currently, the consultants’ report is in draft form, but with feedback from representatives of both the town and Peconic Land Trust, it’s expected to be finalized by next month.
Town Engineer John Cronin and Mr. Needham, who chairs the Waterways Management Advisory Council, agree the report is sound.
“These guys know what they’re talking about,” Mr. Needham said.
“Doing nothing is not a wise choice,” Mr. Cronin said, since it would likely end up destroying the economic engines of Coecles Harbor.
Linda Eklund, co-owner with her husband James of The Ram’s Head Inn said, “I would appreciate stabilizing the problem [if] it be deemed necessary.”
STRIKING A BALANCE
In the report, the consultants addressed a number of methods aimed at stabilizing Reel Point, including using vegetation and sand fencing that traps sand in particular spots, nourishing the beach area with grasses, reinforcing the dunes with rock, and removal or modification of shoreline structures.
Reinforcing with rock and steel is a solution Waterways Management Advisory Council member Marc Wein likes, pointing out that the rocks used to reinforce the Second Causeway on Ram Island have been in place for more than 15 years and been effective in keeping water from overlapping onto the roadway during heavy storms.
Noting that the consultants have included that approach in their proposal, Mr. Cronin said other recommendations are more environmentally friendly.
“We’re trying to strike a balance between cost and effectiveness, honoring a full understanding of all coastal dynamics affecting the Point,” the engineer said. “In the end, we may follow an approach that utilizes [materials] in a manner not unlike what [Mr. Wein] suggested.”
As for spending million of dollars on a project, Mr. Cronin sees a middle road of taking some of the suggested steps. Shelter Island Public Works Commissioner Jay Card Jr. believes substantial costs could be cut by having Highway Department crews do much of the work, rather than hiring outside contractors.
But it’s too early to put a firm price tag on the project, Mr. Card said.
The two town officials agreed that the previous dredgings and attempts at shoring up Reel Point failed so rapidly because the materials used were too light. Following the advice of the consultants, they said a heavier grade of rock is needed that won’t easily shift when rain, wind and waves batter the shore.
Whatever steps the town and Peconic Land Trust take will need approval from the New York State Department of Environmental Protection, Mr. Card said.