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Persistance Pays Off

If you’ve ever tried to get a permit to dredge an inlet or a channel, even if it was just to maintain an existing one, you’ll be able to relate to this almost decade-long saga. If you’re just thinking of it, this will give you some idea of what kind of challenge you are facing. In either case, it makes for interesting reading and a “hats off” to the West Lake Homeowners Association for perservering.

Somewhere back in the ‘20s (the 1920’s that is), before we were to become plagued with ‘alphabet bureaucracy’, Southold’s Six Acre Pond was opened up to Peconic Bay and renamed West Lake. The inlet to the lake was opened using the lattice crane and bucket dragline dredging method, commonly used at that time. And so it was for decades until drifting sand began to fill in the entrance and passage by boat became more and more problematic. Eventually, exit and entry for some boats was restricted to an hour or two before and after high tide.

Fast forward to the mid-80s. A local property owner adjacent to the lake inlet successfully applied to the Town for a permit to demolish and rebuild a home. Permission was granted subject to the homeowner also getting a DEC permit and that they rebuild the inlet bulkhead on their property. The DEC approved with the provision that the inlet’s original operating depth of 5’ be restored.

Upon completion of the dredging, it became apparent that a sand bar was left inside the inlet. Around 1987, the West Lake Homeowners Association (WLHA) was formed for the purpose of, among other things, preserving the entrance to West Lake for recreational usage. The Association successfully applied for a permit to dredge inside the pond to remove the large sandbar that was making passage difficult.

It’s now the mid-90s and the various local, state, and federal governmental agencies have gotten stronger and stricter with environmental issues, especially in the bays and estuaries where threat of pollution and its adverse effect on marine life is the greatest. All well and good…and even commendable. The WLHA proposes to join the two existing dredging/maintenance permits into one combined action since the law allows up to three dredgings within a ten-year period and also allows for extensions of the basic permits beyond the original 10-year limit. This is where the background ends and the saga begins.

To begin, the Town cannot find the paperwork for the original permit granted to the last permitted homeowner. This search continued for two years until it was finally located in a misfiled but related archive. The next obstacle was to get beyond the DEC’s requirements. The question was what to do with the spoils after they were dredged – to take them away or to retain them on the adjoining beaches.

This dragged on for three years and nine amended resubmissions that ended in September 2002 when the DEC agreed to hydraulic dredging, provided that the sand be retained “in the system” for beach re-nourishmet. In addition they wanted the spoils to be contained in Geo-tubes – giant 100’-long black sand-filled tubes that look like humongous Kosher franks gone bad. Since this was a new process, unfamiliar to local dredging contractors, no one was willing to submit an estimate to do the work.

While all this was going on, precious time, unlike the encroaching sand, was drifting away and the Town permit expired. This meant that the entire process, including applications, fees, and hearings had to be re-visited. To its credit, dealing with the Town turned out to be easier as the local officials are quicker to give thumbs-up or thumbs down.

The DEC, on the other hand is a New York State regulating and compliance enforcement body whose expanded powers include overseeing engineering design that ultimately affects cost. It is loath to give support or make positive suggestions to hasten the permit process.

In addition, rather than give an overall list of changes, they will deal them out one at a time forcing unnecessary resubmissions. This permit was so complicated by a list of imposed conditions resulting in significant added costs, that the WHLA felt it necessary to amend the permit. Finally, in 2006, the WLHA received permission from the DEC, the Town, and the Corps of Engineers to proceed.

The project got underway in November 2006 and was completed in May 2007. In a perfect world, this 9-year ordeal should have taken no more than two years.

Lessons to be Learned

  1. An expediter is a good thing. However, when choosing one, be sure that the person is fully knowledgeable in the regulations at all levels of government pertaining to the specific permit being sought. As dredging is a mechanical process, it doesn’t hurt, as in this case, to have one with an engineering background. The WLHA went through more than one and got the best results from a person who had a PhD in mechanical engineering.
  2. Maintain good, annotated records with a complete paper trail that includes dates, times, names, and specific actions. Keep track of upcoming permit expirations and apply for extensions where applicable. If a permit expires, all new filing fees and paperwork will be required.
    A dredging contractor will not even talk to you until you have the proper permits in hand. They are busy people with more work than they can handle, so they don’t to want to waste time preparing quotes on jobs that may or may not be approved – if ever.
  3. The permit process requires persistence, patience, and perseverance even if your creek is silting over or your bulkhead is washing away. Remember that you are dealing with a bureaucracy whose rules change as often as the weather and whose employees do not or cannot understand the plan you are proposing or the pain you’re experiencing.
  4. Dredging doesn’t come cheap. Besides the roughly $100+/cubic yard you have to pay to the contractor, the Town of Southold has an interesting fee structure regarding the sand. The claim is that it belongs to the Town and since it does, they collect $10/cubic yard no matter what you do with it – move it out or replenish a beach.

submitted by Peter Gunn

with thanks to Joe Friedman for his assistance with this story.

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