Nantucket Beach Erosion | A Disappearing Island
“We’ve changed from a tourist destination to a place for summer residents,” says longtime fisherman Bobby DeCosta. “Fishermen don’t have the clout they used to. Merchants don’t, either. Teachers, department heads — regular people can’t afford to live here. I really wonder what this place will look like in 10 years.”
Eldridge wonders that, too. He’s back in his truck, taking a slow spin around Codfish Park. In the early 1990s, a series of nor’easters rolled in, eating up close to 200 feet of beach and dune. Even more dramatic was the toll it took on a row of beachfront houses, forcing their removal, and in one unforgettable moment taking one home out to sea before dispensing with it. A few of Eldridge’s childhood friends lived in those houses, and he slows his truck down to a crawl as he nears their former sites. “It’s so weird,” he keeps saying.
On the road out of Codfish Park, he stops and motions to a tall cedar-shingled house just to the right. On its side is a sundial that his father, a local volunteer fireman, rescued years ago when the building that had stood here burned to the ground. When the home was rebuilt, Eldridge’s father surprised the owners with what he’d salvaged.
“It’s little pieces that make up the whole community,” says Eldridge. “I’m not trying to belittle the homeowners up on the bluff; their memories of ‘Sconset and their lawn parties and everything else are very important. It’s all part of the tradition, and memory, and history. Unfortunately, some board somewhere has to make a decision as to which is more important — whose memories are more important, whose way of life is more important.”
On a late afternoon in autumn, a modest assortment of residents, town officials, and outside consultants file into a small auditorium in Nantucket High School. The meeting, a public hearing between SBPF’s hired team of engineers and scientists and the seven-member Conservation Commission, is the third of many. What the commission decides will determine how and when the Baxter Road residents may move forward to secure local and state permits.
That’s assuming, of course, that the nourishment project even happens. High respect for nature on Nantucket is matched by an equally skeptical view of any attempt to manipulate it. “It’s sort of an old battle,” says Peter Brace, a reporter for the Nantucket Independent. “[Out here] we’re so close to the elements and so close to the ocean and the environment that we’re all environmentally aware. Everyone has an opinion.”
That certainly extends to the ‘Sconset project. On this night, unconvinced residents fire away at the SBPF team. The largest contingent consists of Josh Eldridge and a dozen or so other fishermen, who sit in the back, with arms folded, as they take turns castigating SBPF on its fish-research methods and projections. “At the end of the day,” one fisherman says, “you only came up with the worst proposal.” Their reactions mirror those of most year-rounders, who argue that the logical solution is for the homeowners to just move their houses.
“[We’d] be the immediate beneficiaries of this, but the long-term benefit [would be] for the island,” counters Sam Furrow, who recently paid $200,000 to move his second Baxter Road home. “We protect every other element of the island, but we’re ignoring the shoreline. People say our effort is wrong, but to preclude this effort is very shortsighted if your true love is Nantucket and your intent is to pass it on to people better than you received it.”
But if the scientists are right, if the sea levels continue to rise incrementally and storms become not only more frequent but also more powerful, maybe the only thing Nantucket property owners can do is allow nature its destiny. Jim O’Connell, a coastal geologist for the Sea Grant program at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on Cape Cod, believes that Nantucket’s fate is sealed. “I did a lecture out there last year,” he says. “I showed aerial and ground photos and talked about what I was seeing and what the data showed. I began with a picture of the open ocean and announced, ‘In 8,000 years this will be your island, and until you get to that point, every house is going to enjoy a spectacular ocean view.’ I got only a few chuckles.”
Last March, I returned to Nantucket for the first time in five months. Despite the deep-blue sky, the winds howled and white curling waves made their way toward the island. It had been a long storm season. The south shore in particular had taken a pounding, thanks to a devastating bout of weather in early November that brought 87 mph winds and four inches of rain. In the Madaket area, 16-foot swells had wiped out up to 20 feet of shoreline in some spots.
The most extreme wreckage was on display at the end of Massachusetts Avenue, a bumpy dirt road, lined by several small cottages, that empties out onto the beach. There, a few larger homes at the end of the street had been moved back, onto temporary foundations of steel I-beams and wooden cribbing. Next to one, a ranch aptly named “Breaking Away,” the carnage of its former setting — decking boards, old staircases, a septic tank — littered the ground. On nearby Rhode Island Avenue, people were preparing to move another house for the second time in a year.
Although Eugene Ratner’s house was doing fine, he’d still need to do some work. His wall of bags had sunk a little, and a few had even emptied and floated out to sea, prompting a warning from the Coast Guard. Across the island, in ‘Sconset, things looked a little better. A Baxter Road house that had been lifted up on jacks now sat safely on a new foundation, while a few houses south, Helmut Weymar had planted a new row of beach roses in his backyard.
A few weeks later, the exact degree of opposition to the proposed nourishment project was revealed, when voters came out overwhelmingly against it, 2,986 to 483, in a nonbinding ballot vote — and also decisively supported a temporary moratorium on any kind of large coastal project until island officials have put together a comprehensive coastal-zone management plan. The deadline: end of 2010.
The outcome caught the Baxter Road homeowners — who had lobbied the public with a polished documentary and slick-looking postcards that read, “I want my kids to enjoy ‘Sconset Beach just as I did” — by surprise. Their argument, after all, had been a sort of “what’s good for ‘Sconset Beach is good for the rest of the island.” But a simple reading of the tea leaves told them all they needed to know; despite nearing the end of its sessions before the Conservation Commission, SBPF withdrew its proposal in early May.