Sailors Rejoice! DEP Nixes Destruction Of “Roundhouse” Navigational Aid, Plans Improvements

YOU READ IT HERE FIRST: Local mariners have something to be happy about this New Year: the Department of Environmental Protection reversed course on plans to destroy a 78-year-old navigational aid between Manhattan Beach and Breezy Point that mariners say makes them safer and shows them the way home when gizmos can’t.

According to documents released under a Freedom of Information Law request filed by Sheepshead Bites, the New York City Department of Environmental Protection decided to leave a wastewater diffuser pipe that locals affectionately refer to as the “roundhouse” after sailors and other mariners objected to its removal.

“Comments received questioned whether it would be more advantageous to leave the existing outlet chamber in place,” DEP reps wrote to partnering agencies in a September 2012 letter. “If kept, it could serve as an underwater fish habitat and provide opportunity for sea birds to perch.”

It wasn’t just the environmentalists that the DEP sought to please; the agency determined the now defunct roundhouse served a crucial purpose for navigation, and as a marker for underwater infrastructure that could damage vessels.

“There was concern that if the chamber was removed only to the mud-line, the remains of the existing chamber below the mud-line would pose a water hazard,” the letter said, noting that a marker would need to be installed if the diffuser was removed.

However, the roundhouse was never intended to aid mariners. It’s a concrete wastewater diffuser that for three quarters of a century has discharged treated sewer water into Jamaica Bay from the Coney Island Wastewater Treatment Plant. The DEP, working alongside the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, the Army Corps of Engineers and the NYC Department of Small Business Services, revealed plans to remove the roundhouse in early 2011 after two eroded outfall pipes began leaking wastewater, as first reported by Sheepshead Bites.

As part of the construction, which started in spring 2011, Army Corps contractors dredged up approximately 5,300 cubic yards of sand, replaced the pipes and dumped a bed of gravel underneath. But they also planned to install a modern diffuser, eliminating the need for the roundhouse, which they’d remove rather than maintain.

But boaters slammed the decision, calling the roundhouse a “reliable landmark” for sailing through the Rockaway channel at night or in the fog – a fixed point that provides better readings than floating buoys or electronic gizmos.

At first the DEP refused to budge, saying that the cost of maintaining the structure outweighed the benefit. Later, though, they changed their minds.

“If it keeps people happy, why not?” said Jonathan Clipper, a project manager for the DEP.

And that, it does.

“Although it may serve no purpose as a sewer outlet any longer, the many boaters out of Sheepshead Bay, Gerritsen Inlet, and all of Jamaica Bay, have to be thankful,” said Manhattan Beach resident and avid sailor Stuart Fries. “While on a clear day, the importance of the sighting of the roundhouse might not be that important, there are many days that foggy and hazy conditions exist, that the disappearance of the roundhouse will cause monumental problems for boaters.”

Sailor Stan Kaplan, who was one of the most vocal opponents of the plan to remove the roundhouse, agreed.

“As a taxpayer, I’m glad they’re not spending the money. As a mariner, I’m glad it’s staying. Me, personally, I like seeing it there,” Kaplan said. “Now it’ll last the rest of my lifetime.”

The DEP will not just preserve the roundhouse, but improve it. Contractors will replace the existing railings, reinstall granite blocks that have broken off, repoint grout, install a new ladder, and place a solar-powered beacon to be better seen by mariners – among other improvements.

— additional reporting by Yafah Sutton.