Tax On Hampton's Wealthy Pays To Fix Public Beach

Originally published on February 27, 2013 7:37 am
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There is a longstanding debate over whether the federal government should pay to rebuild eroded beaches. Some think it's a waste of taxpayer money and others liken it to maintaining the country's infrastructure. In the playground for the rich and famous - the Hamptons - some wealthy homeowners have skipped the debate entirely. Charles Lane of member station WSHU reports that they're shelling out $25 million to fix the public beach in front of their private homes.


CHARLES LANE, BYLINE: The chill winter wind has the Atlantic Ocean roiling. Angry shoulder high waves beat against this postcard shore, inching their way toward some of the priciest real estate in the country - multimillion dollar mansions protected by about 30 yards of sand. And then came Sandy.

GARY IRELAND: The tide came over the dune, and rushed under the house. And the beach is very narrow and we're really in emergency situations.

LANE: Gary Ireland lives in Manhattan and keeps a summer house in Southampton. He and others have tried for 20 years to get the Army Corps of Engineers to pump sand onto the beach to build it out and keep the sea at a safe distance. So far, the Army Corps has refused saying re-nourishing the beach is part of a much larger project that it hasn't yet had the time or the money to finish.

So Ireland and 200 other owners have given up, and instead, are doing it themselves.

IRELAND: If the alternative is to have our home wash into the ocean then, unfortunately, this is what we have to do.

LANE: The way they're financing the project is unheard of and what proponents call a model for quasi-public works projects in the future. The owners voted to create a special taxing district made up of just the 200 homes on the beach. The town of Southampton agreed to float a bond that the owners will pay back through the special tax.

The price isn't cheap, about $13,000 per household per year. But it will boost property values because the summer homes will be protected. So will the local tourist economy. But Ireland takes it a step further.

IRELAND: There's a public benefit because you've got a public beach being created, widened, and strengthened.

LANE: It's this public benefit private cost that caused the most consternation for people with homes in the new taxing district. Forty percent of those who voted opposed the new tax. People like Ken and Dorothy Finger. Nonetheless, they have to pay.

DOROTHY FINGER: So if everybody in the town benefits, everyone in the town should pay some portion.

KEN FINGER: But to my neighbor across the street who has a right of way through my property, and uses the ocean, and doesn't have to pay a penny. Or to, as Dorothy says, the business owners in the town or the tourists.

LANE: Some outside the new taxing district in Southampton went so far as to call the deal a bailout for the rich who, they say, are taking advantage cheap public debt that could put the town's credit rating at risk. Mathew Habbermen questions why the town is involved at all, with houses, he thinks, are too close to the water.

MATHEW HABBERMEN: Because if a house goes in, then they say the town has to do something about it. It's not the town's problem; it theirs.

LANE: Though, as a frequent beachgoer, Habbermen says he's glad Long Island's wealthy summer residents are taking charge and restoring the Southampton beach themselves when public resources are so thin. For NPR News, I'm Charles Lane.


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