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Oct 8, 2014 2:28 AM

Fight over piping plover halts Sandy recovery

The Associated Press

BAY SHORE, N.Y. (AP) A court fight to protect the piping plover is holding up a $207 million plan to replenish sand along a 19-mile stretch of shoreline on New York's Fire Island.

The small bird that lives on the island is listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act and, elsewhere in the country, is listed as endangered. Besides arguing to protect the bird's habitat, critics say the project would be a huge waste of money.

But elected officials have decried the delay, saying human lives are in danger if a repeat of 2012's Superstorm Sandy strikes the region and work is not completed to bulk up Fire Island as a barrier for mainland Long Island. During the storm, dunes as high as 20 feet facing the Atlantic Ocean were credited with absorbing the brunt of Sandy's fury and preventing widespread damage on the barrier island 5 miles south of Long Island's mainland.

A hearing on the dispute was set for Wednesday in federal court on Long Island.

On one side is the environmental group Audubon New York, which last month obtained a temporary restraining order halting the project. One the other is the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is directing the project. Suffolk County joined the government's side last week.

"We understand there are legitimate environmental concerns; there are concerns about the piping plover," said Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone. "But you need to understand, No. 1, that we also have to be concerned about people and the impact on people."

The conservation organization says it is not trying to halt the entire sand replenishment project which envisions taking 4.5 million cubic yards of sand from the Atlantic Ocean seabed and placing it on Fire Island beaches.

Erin Crotty, Audubon New York's executive director, says her organization is concerned about two specific piping plover nesting areas one on the eastern part of Fire Island, near Smith Point County Park, and a second near the Fire Island Lighthouse.

Crotty, the former head of the state Department of Environmental Conservation, said if the project is permitted to proceed the plovers' habitat will be destroyed. The sand-colored bird, which grows to a mere 7 inches tall, makes its nests on the sand.

"There is no doubt in my mind the project can be protective of the plover and also protect coastal communities," she said. "We have repeatedly said that we are confident it can be redesigned so that it meets the needs of both."

Robert S. Young, a Western Carolina University professor who has studied Fire Island and submitted a document supporting Audubon's case, calls the project "a colossal waste of money."

Young cited a May 2014 report from the U.S. Geological Survey that found flooding from storms after Sandy struck in October 2012 was not the result of damage to Fire Island from the superstorm.

"Fire Island in its current state has shown no increase in storm surge," Young said. "There is no emergency and there is not a threat to life."

Betty Adie, 77, who has been visiting Fire Island since she was an infant, was asked about the dispute after closing up her home for the season and disembarking from a ferry on a recent morning.

"Without that barrier beach, the south shore of Long Island is going to be under water, and they saw that during Sandy," she said. "I can't understand their thinking. I'm an animal lover, but you can get ridiculous about things.

"If a hurricane comes in there, the piping plovers are going to be wiped out too."


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