BAY SHORE, N.Y. (AP) — A court fight over a protected bird called the piping plover is holding up a $207 million plan to replenish the sand along a 19-mile stretch of New York's Fire Island.
The small, sparrow-like bird that lives on the island is listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act and, elsewhere in the country, is classified as endangered.
Besides arguing that the bird's habitat is in jeopardy, critics say the project would be a huge waste of money.
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 heavily populated parts of Long Island.
During the storm, dunes as high as 20 feet were credited with absorbing the brunt of Sandy's fury and preventing wider damage. Fire Island is a long, thin barrier island that runs parallel to the south shore of Long Island.
A federal court conference on the dispute was held Wednesday in Central Islip. The judge refused to lift a temporary restraining order halting the Army Corps of Engineers project.
Franklin Amanat, the Army Corps of Engineers' lawyer, had no comment. Erin Crotty, executive director of Audubon New York, said the environmental group is still hoping to reach an agreement. The parties are due back in court Dec. 16.
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.
Crotty said her organization is concerned about two piping plover nesting areas — one on the eastern part of Fire Island, near Smith Point County Park, the other near the Fire Island Lighthouse.
Crotty, former head of the state Department of Environmental Conservation, said if the project goes forward, the plovers' habitat will be destroyed. The sand-colored bird, which grows to a mere 7 inches tall, nests in 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 that Sandy-inflicted damage to Fire Island was not responsible for flooding caused by storms that have struck since then.
"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.
"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."
She added: "If a hurricane comes in there, the piping plovers are going to be wiped out, too."