Nantucket Beach Erosion | A Disappearing Island
“[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.
Opponents of the project, like fisherman Josh Eldridge, followed up their sudden victory with both a willingness to help SBPF find a more agreeable solution and some concern over what the group’s idea for a new erosion fix might just be. “[Killing the proposal] is going to help them out with the island right away. They do have a problem,” says Eldridge. “But look, you’re dealing with a lot of old Yankees out here, and so after they withdrew, a morbid dread kind of set in — a feeling of What are they going to do now?”
Just exactly what the ‘Sconset homeowners are going to do is uncertain. Weymar says he hopes that SBPF can help the island create the coastal-zone management plan so that residents can vote on it at next year’s Town Meeting. If that happens, it’s possible, he says, that he and others will have regrouped enough by then to put together a new proposal for combating erosion as well. But they’ll have to contend with the hangover from this most recent defeat first.
“There’s been a lot of talk about working together, and I’m going to take it at face value, but my confidence is marginal that we can find a solution that’s acceptable to everyone,” predicts Weymar. “We didn’t expect this level of opposition. It was too technical, and it got quite emotional — people claiming environmental catastrophe. But I do think we raised the consciousness that erosion is an island-wide problem.”