Tale of two cousins: A year after Irene, shoreline barely safer
East Haven — On a morning he described as a “10,” Andy Weinstein and his cousin Sara-Ann Auerbach stood on the stretch of Cosey Beach the two have shared for decades.
Just short of a year after Tropical Storm Irene reduced Weinstein’s home to rubble and sent half of Auerbach’s into the water while toppling the other half nearly on its side, Long Island Sound and the blue sky over it were as unstorm-like as they ever get.
“Except we’re not in bathing suits,” Auerbach said.
But Irene, which struck early on Aug. 28, 2011, was still everywhere. Yawning wounds in nearby homes exposed interiors and layers of shingle that dated them like tree rings. Weather and water-worn wooden posts that had supported the deck of the 1890-built summer house Auerbach’s parents purchased in 1943 still protruded from the sand many feet down-beach from where the foundation for her 2012 rebuild was being fashioned.
Two doors down, what had been the property that held Weinstein’s half of a duplex he purchased in 2008 after renting it for several summers stood ringed by chain-link fence, emblazoned with large “for sale” signs.
“It was a conversation every day for at least a month, maybe longer,” said Weinstein of his and his wife’s decision to sell.
Money was key with two children in college and a price tag of a quarter-million dollars for a less than 700-square-foot foundation. The Weinsteins pulled the plug on rebuilding this spring, after months of dealing with insurance, three different levels of government regulation, engineers and more — a process they endured alongside Auerbach and her husband.
“I’ve been here my whole life,” Auerbach said, explaining her opposite choice with emotion getting the better of her as she talked of her children and grandchildren growing up there and Weinstein’s family visiting. “We felt as long as we could financially and emotionally and every other way do it, we wanted to do it.”
That these two cousins (first cousins, once removed) have come to opposite conclusions about how to move on from Irene, speaks to the realities that have set in along this hard-hit stretch of beach in particular and the Connecticut shoreline in general since the storm.
They are realities that pit the thorny question of individual property rights against government regulation as property owners weigh risk against financial considerations, ponder environmental and regulatory unknowns and face the worrisome recognition that many, if not most, shoreline properties, may be no less vulnerable to an Irene than they were a year ago.
“I’m certainly not entirely comfortable with the level of risk that still exists out there,” said Brian Thompson, director of the Office of Long Island Sound Programs at the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.
Federal rules mean most of the damaged homes won’t have to rebuild any more fortified than they were — in a lot of cases nothing more than an early 20th century sand-level, barely reinforced cottage; flood insurance optional if no bank financing is involved.
“If we get another big storm, there’s still potential for serious property damage,” Thompson said.
Homes like Weinstein’s and Auerbach’s that sustained a loss of 50 percent or more of the value of the structure (not the property it’s on) or new construction unrelated to storm damage, must build to height and other specifications dictated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Physical devastation aside, the cousins each received rude awakenings from flood and homeowner’s insurance: Auerbach’s didn’t cover much and Weinstein went through months of fighting over whether his damage was caused by wind or water. That was followed by reality checks from FEMA, local zoning and state environmental regulations about what would and wouldn’t fly when rebuilding.
During the process, Weinstein signed on as the only “civilian,” as he puts it, on a new Shoreline Preservation Task Force created by Rep. James Albis, D-East Haven, to begin a holistic assessment of shoreline issues related to sea level rise, climate change, storms and other environmental factors.
If Weinstein’s eyes weren’t open after he saw his house resembling splinters and the obstacle course he’d been traveling since, they were certainly open after three public hearings and numerous education sessions.
“There’s a lot of peril facing us,” he said. “We have railroad tracks that are ready to be under water. We have roads that already are underwater. When there’s a rainfall, there are people along the shoreline that can’t get out of their houses. We have an airport — the only airport in this area — one storm, boom, that airport’s gone. We have sewer treatment plants that are really in danger in the next storm.”
It’s the questions of how to address these concerns and who should be addressing them that reflect the explosive issue of private property rights vs. government dictates. Weinstein and Auerbach echo the views of many shoreline residents and officials in their contention that there is too much government intrusion in the shoreline building process.
“I’m spending my time and my money and I’m following the rules,” said Auerbach, who has had to raise her house 13 feet and move it back among other requirements to comply with FEMA regulations and state and local zoning and building codes. “But don’t make so many rules for me.”
Had she waited until after Oct. 1, when state legislation passed last session goes into effect, she might have had more. Among its many provisions designed to help communities consider sea level rise as part of shoreline planning, the law changes the key measurement of the high tide line, which dictates building placement near the water, to a new elevation measure called a coastal jurisdiction line.
Further complications will come with the implementation of the National Flood Insurance Program overhaul signed into law last month by President Barack Obama. It will likely mean higher rates, especially for non-primary residence shoreline homes like Auerbach’s, which may mean that more shoreline residents will opt out of flood insurance if they can.
A third complication arrives next year when FEMA issues new flood zone maps that are likely to classify additional homes as risky, resulting in even more government oversight.
Although complaints about government dictating where and how to build are ubiquitous, most property owners hit by Irene were happy to accept payment for their damage. In Connecticut, more than $80 million in damage related to Irene has been paid out by flood insurance covering about 3,000 claims. Another 600 claims resulted in no payouts.
And even Weinstein and Auerbach on one hand want government’s hands off their homes. On the other, they would like to see government explore protection projects like breakwaters — offshore underwater structures that diminish wave action. They have become something of a shoreline mantra in East Haven, but officials caution that they are porous and would not have stopped the storm surge that destroyed Auerbach’s and Weinstein’s homes. And to get government, specifically the Army Corps of Engineers, to foot their steep bill would probably require public access to Cosey Beach, almost all of which is now private.
But nothing sets the tone for the government vs. private property maelstrom more than the subject of seawalls. Viewed by many as the panacea that would have saved Cosey Beach from Irene, they are universally decried by the scientific and environmental communities, and the prevailing sentiment at DEEP is to discourage them. Walls, they argue, magnify wave action, causing greater erosion and directing water toward areas without walls — which means one person’s wall could damage another’s property.
“Go anywhere where there’s a seawall; there’s no beach in front of it,” said R. Laurence Davis, a geomorphologist in the department of biology and environmental sciences at the University of New Haven. “Certainly rebuilding them exactly the way they were, well they didn’t work last time.”
Another part of the new state law establishes guidelines to minimize seawalls in favor of less environmentally damaging alternatives like dunes and “living shorelines” that employ techniques such as salt marshes and sand fill to absorb or divert water. But a pilot project to do that has no clear funding source, so its implementation is problematic.
DEEP’s Thompson said law generally requires the state to authorize reconstruction of existing walls, setting the stage for a repeat of Irene-driven damage where walls may have directed water elsewhere.
Sen. Len Fasano, a North Haven Republican whose district includes East Haven — where he has a home on Cosey Beach and owns the Silver Sands Beach Club, which took a $3 million hit from Irene — is among those who feel government is overstepping its bounds on private shoreline property rights.
“I think we have to reconsider what we build, where we build and how we build,” he said. “And then you’ve got to bump that or scale it with the constitutional property rights that we hold in our country. So that’s the balancing act.”
Fasano, also a member of the Shoreline Preservation Task Force, is a recent convert to sea level rise theory. He’s noted that the salt marshes behind his home and club and an adjacent dirt road fill with water almost daily since Irene instead of just during certain wether conditions, though he thinks the high tide lines have moved back to pre-Irene levels. And on another pristine Cosey Beach day, he and Albis pointed to a long stretch of sandbags supporting Victoria Beach, where a bluff stood before Irene, next to a section of seawall.
“If I want to protect my property and you’re my neighbor and you don’t want to protect your property then don’t protect your property,” Fasano said. “But don’t tell me I can’t protect my property.”
On the other hand, Albis said his task force has heard a lot of support for community-based shoreline remediation. “We can’t have one solution for one house and a different solution for the next house,” he said.
To that end, Albis and Fasano are pushing residents of the east side of Cosey Beach to form a flood erosion district to fund large projects as the west side of Cosey Beach did to fund a sand replacement project that began in the 1950s.
“We also need to look at some areas that don’t have current building on it and say listen, this is probably not a good idea to build here,” Albis said, articulating near-blasphemy in a community that counts on revenue from the hefty property taxes that seaside homeowners pay. “Maybe we need to come up with some stricter rules.”
Not if Weinstein and Auerbach have anything to say about it.
“I think the government is telling us what we can and can’t do too much,” Auerbach said. “To say that all waterfront pieces of property should be torn down, they should be a natural preserve, it’s none of government’s business.”
Weinstein added: “I think what government needs to do first and foremost is allow people to do what they feel they need to do. With answers that are given quickly.
“It’s a daunting task.”
Weinstein intends to continue working on that as part of the task force even though he is selling his little Cosey Beach strip. In fact, he still calls it “my neighborhood.”
“It’s going to be my neighborhood as long as Sara-Ann has her house,” he laughed.
To which she answered: “That’s perfectly all right with me. The last key went out to sea but I’ll give him a new key.”
Said Weinstein: “I don’t think I’ve seen my last days on the water. I don’t know how that’s going to play out, but that’s my gut reaction.”
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