2011-09-02 / Top Stories

Hurricane Irene Renews Dune Debate

By Howard Schwach


Prior to the storm, Sirota pointing out a problems with the dunes to Parks official Jill Weber. Prior to the storm, Sirota pointing out a problems with the dunes to Parks official Jill Weber. Not long after Hurricane Irene passed over Rockaway last Sunday, west end residents were on the phone with each other, debating whether or not the “private” dunes in Belle Harbor helped keep the sand off local streets.

Belle Harbor resident Martin Ain provided many photographs to show that the central dunes, which have been cared for by locals, held and protected their streets from sand and water, while the streets without dunes, or with dunes that had deteriorated because of lack of care and abuse by residents did not protect their streets.

At the same time, another resident, who declined to give his name, phoned to say that all the dunes had failed and that the storm was proof that the dunes should be bulldozed.

Ain provided evidence that the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation had been warned a number of times that the dunes were crumbling and needed restoration work.


The seawall at beach 135 Street, which was not protected by a viable dune, was breached by Irene. The seawall at beach 135 Street, which was not protected by a viable dune, was breached by Irene. “They ignored us every time we emailed or called them,” Ain said, arguing that a chain of dunes would have protected the west end from the flooding that left many with flooded basements and garages.

The debate over west end dunes started long ago, in 2006, when a group of residents sued in New York Supreme Court, arguing that the dunes, which were paid for by another group of local residents, were legal.

A New York State Supreme Court Justice threw that lawsuit in 2009, but it was recently renewed by one hold-out homeowner.

That 2006 lawsuit brought by a group of Belle Harbor residents against the City’s Department of Parks and Recreation and Department of Environmental Protection charged that the two agencies illegally allowed dunes to be placed on their beachfront.


Local residents with one of the dunes that had deteriorated prior to the storm. Local residents with one of the dunes that had deteriorated prior to the storm. In her decision at that time, the judge wrote, “It is well settled that, in order for the petitioners to prevail in this action [they] must assert that they live within close proximity to the sand dunes, that they suffer some harm which is different than the harm suffered by the general public and that the alleged injury falls within the zone of interest sought to be protected or promoted by the statute under which the governmental action was taken.“

She ruled that the plaintiffs had no standing to sue and that they missed the statute of limitations.

“The petitioners have failed to prove that they have standing to continue this action. Accordingly, the petition is dismissed,” she wrote.


The central dunes held and protected the streets behind them, Sirota said. The central dunes held and protected the streets behind them, Sirota said. The lawsuit, which targeted a series of dunes that stretch from Beach 138 to Beach 142 Street, was filed in September of 2006 in state Supreme Court in Queens.

It alleged that Parks built the dunes in 1997 at the request of seven beachfront homeowners who also funded the project — without a permit and without consulting the public first.

The residents who brought the suit, James Agoglia, Carol Ellis, Arlene Jordan, Philip Kelly, Edward Murray and Robert Tyne, say they sued on behalf of all Belle Harbor residents and beachgoers at large because the dunes, in time, have grown in size and now limit beach access and pose a threat to human health.

The dunes make it nearly impossible for residents — especially those who are elderly, handicapped or pregnant — to access the beach, the suit charges.

“Not only do the dunes deprive the local residents, and all New York City residents, of the use and enjoyment of a designated public space, but the dunes have become a safety issue,” the suit reads.

The dunes are blamed for restricting emergency vehicle access, creating a place for underage dr inking and attracting insects and wild animals.

Wood and wire fencing used to keep people off the dunes is almost completely buried in some sections and creates a tripping hazard, the suit says.

One complaint outlined in the lawsuit makes the point that the dunes take away from the useable portion of the beach but also have the unintended effect of highlighting the dunes’ value as a natural barrier. “At high tide, the water comes up to the edge of the dunes ... and there is no or very little beach for public use during high tide,” it says.

The dunes were built in 1997 and the lawsuit was brought in 2006, she said, adding that the judge found that the suit was not timely. She added that if the plaintiffs were injured by the construction of the dunes, they were no more injured than any citizen in Belle Harbor, and therefore had no standing to sue.

Reacting to the decision throwing out the lawsuit, Agoglia told The Wave on Monday that the suit is now “water under the bridge” as far as he’s concerned.

Agoglia later reinstated the suit, which is still going through the court system.

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