Nantucket Beach Erosion | A Disappearing Island
But that’s not something that Ratner and other wealthy summer residents who have scooped up valuable, but vulnerable, waterfront property over the years are prepared to concede. That battle with nature — a confidence in the belief that determination, technology, and money can restrain the elements — is an old story, too. As is the outcome. In recent years, millions of dollars on this island have washed out to sea.
The relationship between homeowners like Ratner and town officials out here hasn’t been easy. Nantucket has some of the most restrictive building codes on the East Coast. Hard structures, like seawalls, which line much of the Cape, have largely been banned since 1983. On the south shore, the Conservation Commission has kept a tight leash on homeowners like Ratner whose ideas for saving their houses have consisted of anything other than finding new locations. “There’s no love lost,” Ratner admits. He sued island officials when they denied him permission to use an even larger sand-saving technology called Geotubes.
“[These bags] aren’t a cost-effective method of erosion control,” he admits, standing in his driveway. Nearby, his handyman is nailing sheets of geotextile fabric on a wall of plywood in front of a garden of hydrangeas.
“But there’s nobody with a view like what I have here. In the summertime it’s unbelievable,” he adds. “The house is up — what are you going to do, just walk away and let it go into the ocean?
“I told the town that I’ll be here until I’m dead, and I’ve followed that. I’m not going to get wiped out, but the road will. I’ll lose my electricity and then I’ll be an island. If that happens, I’ll just go get a generator.”
Across the island, Nantucket’s ‘Sconset Beach stretches out, a narrowing, often empty strip of sand that helps form the eastern bend that defines the shape of this island. It’s a summerlike fall day, and flat waves lap their way toward the bluff. At the base of one particular section, a small crew of workers builds a wall of sand-filled jute bags, each measuring half a football field long. It’s a mini–construction zone, with tractors moving earth and dumptrucks unloading sand from atop the cliff. But it’s just a stopgap measure, something that will only delay the ocean’s attack. Over the coming winter, this crew will be out here repeatedly to repair what the
water has done.
It’s pushing three o’clock and the men are getting ready to go. Two of them, Manuel and Juan, both from El Salvador, take a moment to assess the day’s work. “Seven years I’ve been doing this,” says Manuel. “We do the same spots over and over.” Just then an anxious Juan says something to his friend in Spanish. Manuel turns back and points to his wrist, pretending he has a watch. “We have to go,” he says. “The water is coming.”
And with that, the two scamper up the steep cliff, at times using their hands to claw upward, before a final ascent over the bluff’s bowed-out top section, where they disappear.
Here in Siasconset, or ‘Sconset as it’s known locally, homeowners aren’t fighting just the sea; they’re fighting their neighbors, too. At the center of this battle is a collection of some 50 lavish houses on Baxter Road, a quiet seaside street that dead-ends at Sankaty Head Light, to the north. Perched high on a sandy bluff with commanding ocean views, these homes, with names like “Luke’s Lair” and “East of Eden,” are the part-time addresses of people who’ve made their fortunes off-island. For the past 15 years, wind and waves have been shearing off the bluff and, for some folks out here, necessitating an expensive retreat from the water as homes are jacked up and moved to safer ground.
Millions have been spent on erosion research and mitigation work, too, with a good chunk of that money coming from the wallet of a tall, lean 71-year-old, a retired commodities trader named F. Helmut Weymar. Weymar, who lives in Princeton, New Jersey, has entrenched himself in erosion battles over these past two decades with a doggedness that has earned him the local nickname “the Determined German.”