Nantucket Beach Erosion

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Nantucket Beach Erosion

ConCom Votes 5-2 To Approve Temporary Baxter Road Project;
Commissioners Express Misgiving

The Nantucket Conservation Commission on Wednesday, December 18, 2013 approved by a vote of five to two a temporary project allowing the Town of Nantucket and the Sconset Beach Preservation Fund (SBPF) to construct a 900-foot-long structure consisting of three levels of geotubes. The Town and SBPF now have thirty days to construct the system. At the same time, the Nantucket Conservation Commission will hold hearings on a formal Notice of Intent. If the Commission approves the Notice of Intent, which is not guaranteed, it will then issue orders setting forth detailed conditions under which the structure must be built, maintained, and removed.

The Town’s purpose in joining the temporary project is to buy time to arrange for alternate road and utility access to the upper segment of Baxter Road.

The project is not the permanent coastal engineering structure sought by SBPF, nor is it as tall or as long as the structure originally requested by the applicants. The permanent structure would have been four times as long and a stone-based revetment. When this proposal was rejected, the applicants requested a shorter, geotube-based structure.

In spite of the reductions in the length and size of the structure, some commissioners and members of  public expressed misgivings about the scope and impact of the project. These reservations were best expressed by Commissioner Johnson who stated “We really don’t know what the impact of this project will be.”

Many other uncertainties were expressed during the hearing, which lasted for more than two hours and included arguments between and among members of the Commission.

What is the right number of geotubes to install? Some commissioners argued for two tubes, others for four. The motion which carried, calling for three tubes, seemed aimed at finding common ground among commissioners, rather than being based on scientific evidence.

Some commissioners expressed a preference for using jute bags. Since these were not ordered when the project was first planned, they cannot be obtained for another two months.

The Commission’s support for a limited, temporary project seemed to be based on a desire to cooperate with another part of Town government -- The Board of Selectmen.
Comments from members of the public were varied and instructive. D. Anne Atherton questioned why the Town had not considered moving Baxter Road and utility lines to the west of their current positions, since space is available. She also noted that the Town’s engineering consultant warned that the protection of upper Baxter Road could not be guaranteed under any of the plans proposed by the applicants.

Emily McKinnon, speaking for the Nantucket Land Council, argued that even the temporary geotube project is more extensive than needed to provide emergency protection for the road and utility lines. She also noted that no coastal engineers are on the staff of the State Department of Environmental Protection.

Dirk Roggeveen, an attorney representing Quidnet and Squam homeowners, reminded commissioners that they have the right to reject a project based on health and safety concerns, among which is the possibility that geotube materials could get stuck in fishing boat propellers, as they have in the past.

Board of Selectmen member Tobias Glidden also addressed the meeting, asking commissioners to consider the possible damage stemming from efforts to slow beach erosion. He reminded the Commission of the damaging fire that took place in 1846, drawing a parallel between destruction caused by efforts to stop the fire and possible damage from efforts to stop erosion.

John Merson, speaking as a Baxter Road homeowner concerned about damage to the beach, offered the view that many more people could be harmed than helped by the project. He also noted that several more homes on upper Baxter Road have been moved since the project was first proposed, further reducing the number of properties at risk. Finally, he recalled the advice of Scituate Selectman and coastal geologist Rick Murray, who warned that in his town’s long experience with coastal engineering, no structures had worked to prevent erosion and that the cost of maintaining coastal structures had proven prohibitive.

Other questions were raised but not answered during the discussion: Will homeowners have to file lawsuits to recover damages from SBPF’s $10 million liability insurance policy? How would victims prove that the harm to their properties was caused by the SBPF structure? Will SBPF cover all of the costs required to maintain the structure until it is removed? Will SBPF appeal to Superior Court to gain approval for a larger,  permanent project? Will a Quidnet/Squam homeowner sue as threatened to block the current project?

The Conservation Commission next turns to the task of reviewing the Notice of Intent (NOI) and, if it approves the NOI, setting forth conditions for the installation, maintenance and removal of the temporary structure.

John C. Merson
[email protected]
December 20, 2013

Beach Erosion - The Experiment

Nantucket is now engaged in an experiment with the use of hard armoring techniques on our eastern shore. The Board of Selectmen joined in supporting this project in order to protect the upper end of Baxter Road. The Sconset Beach Preservation Fund (SBPF) proposed and funded the project to preserve homes along Baxter Road. The Conservation Commission gave approval for a temporary installation of three geotubes -- to be removed within the next few years. Given the SBPF's track record of proposing permanent installations, they will certainly return with new and expanded proposals.

In the meanwhile, we need to be alert to the impact of the massive construction project that is underway on the Sconset Beach. The best scientific evidence is that the beach will be lost, and that more severe erosion will damage the Quident, Squam, and Low Beach Road neighborhoods. Only time will reveal the extent of the damage. 

Among the other questions to be answered are:

1. Will the geotubes protect upper Baxter Road for enough time to allow the Town to secure new road and utility access for the few remaining homes on upper Baxter Road?

2. Will the Board of Selectmen move aggressively to secure alternate access so that the geotubes can be removed and the beach protected from further construction damage?

3. What will be the extent of destruction to Sconset's small and fragile roads caused by the heavy truck traffic?

4. How much will Sconset property values be reduced by the ongoing geotube maintenance programs?

5. Will homeowners in other island neighborhoods seize on the precedent created by the SBPF to launch their own hard armoring projects, leading to widespread destruction of island beaches in the name of protecting oceanfront homes?

6. Finally, what unforeseen impacts will result from the Sconset beach construction?

Since no one has repealed the Law of Unintended Consequences, we need to be alert to unplanned geotube impacts.

John Merson

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