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Proposed Reel Point solution awaits Army Corps response: Trying to conclude a decade-long process

It has been close to 10 years since Shelter Island officials began to express concerns about saving Reel Point, a spit of land jutting out into Coecles Harbor.

Strong wave action emanating from Point Judith, R.I., has  continued to erode Reel Point, and its total loss would mean there would be no buffer for the harbor. The wave and wind action varies a great deal, and not only threatens the Coecles Harbor shoreline, but also

on which Reel Point fronts. This is according to a 2017 study of the problem conducted by Long Island consulting engineering companies LKB and First Coastal, which outlined the problem and potential solutions in a Comprehensive Shoreline Management Plan for Reel Point Preserve.

If Reel Point is washed away, businesses and residences around Coecles Harbor will be in peril. The harbor is ringed by many homes and businesses lining its shores, including Coecles Harbor Marina, Clark’s Marina, The Ram’s Head Inn and CH Marine Yacht Builders.

Failure of the Point could destroy these businesses and many private properties on Ram Island and the Pandion luxury residential development on the former St. Gabriel’s site.

The cost in dollars, if Reel Point is lost, would be measured in the tens of millions of dollars. Former Town Engineer John Cronin and former Commissioner of Public Works Jay Card Jr. sounded the alarm several years ago and persistently called for shoring up the Point. Their voices were heard by former Congressman Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley), who fought to bring federal dollars to the project.

The engineering consultants’ study provides an overview of threat levels associated with ongoing erosion and alternatives to stabilize Reel Point.

Millions have been spent through the years dredging the area and trying to recycle the spoils, which were first placed along the eastern shoreline. But since 2019, the dredged material has been placed on the spine of the point. Both efforts resulted in only temporary improvements, since wind and wave action have moved the sand farther south.

Town officials appreciate the efforts the Suffolk County Public Works Department has undertaken with both mechanical and hydraulic dredging of the area, Councilman Jim Colligan said. Nonetheless, a more permanent solution is necessary, he added.

According to a response sent by Mr. Colligan and Town Engineer Joe Finora to questions recently posed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, “The narrowing of Reel Point is creating a situation where over-washing and the eventual incipient breach of the point are likely in the near future, if no action is taken.”

Mr. Colligan has been spearheading the effort to get a response from Congress about funding of a project, and from the Army Corps of Engineers about scheduling work since 2016.

There have been times through the years when it seemed a project might be moving forward, but even when it appeared possible, other projects popped up on the schedule for the Army Corps of Engineers.

The push has continued, and once again, Mr. Colligan said he has hopes for success.

The over-washing has already been destroying flora and wildlife habitat and “degraded the point, increasing the potential for a breach” that would separate the southern part of Reel Point from the mainland of Ram Island.

“This breach would create an additional channel which would lower the provided flood and erosion protection, destroy vital habitats and potentially result in increased shoaling of the existing channel due to reduced current. Moreover, the southerly migration of the spit is in-filling the navigation channel, requiring more frequent dredging to keep the channel navigable,” according to the 2017 consultants’ report.

As if the threats to shorelines weren’t sufficient, the latest responses point out the importance of the area in terms of endangered species. The New York State Department of State has called the area a significant coastal fish and wildlife habitat. Coecles Harbor has been identified in more recent studies as having some of the largest eelgrass beds in the Peconic Estuary.

“If continued over-washing resulted in significant lowering of Reel Point or if the spit was to breach, the Coecles Harbor shoreline would likely experience a significant increase in wave height and water levels during even minor storms,” according to the response sent to the Army Corps of Engineers. “Increased wave heights and water levels would likely result in increased property damage to the commercial and private properties located within the harbor as well as habitat loss,” according to the response sent to the Army Corps of Engineers.

“It is very important that Reel Point be enhanced to increase its flood and erosion protection . . .through a sustainable stabilization alternative” to provide significant economic and environmental benefits for the entire Reel Point region.”

The latest response Mr. Colligan outlined is a three-pronged approach to the initial work needed:

• The eastern shoreline needs to be stabilized first with sand replenishment and then cobble stones placed over the sand that would be about 18 inches in thickness and 30 to 50 feet in width. The beach area also needs to be widened.

• The western shoreline needs to be replenished with sand, although not as much as what’s needed on the eastern shoreline.

• Additional hydrologic dredging needs to occur from the channel and mouth of Coecles Harbor to elevate the spine, followed by planting of native grasses and vegetation. There also might be construction of sand fencing or other means such as geotextile, rock or sheet pile.

In the past, a step that had been recommended was some sort of barrier a distance from Reel Point that could break up the strength of the wave action. Whether that is still under consideration, it wasn’t mentioned in the current response.

“We are hoping that you will be able to be receptive and supportive to an “eco-system restoration” project for Reel Point,” stated the response Mr. Colligan sent. The Town Board awaits a response it hopes will be forthcoming soon from the Corps and positive with support for a project, Mr. Colligan said.