Slip Sliding Away on Nantucket

Slip Sliding Away on Nantucket

Year-round residents and wealthy summer visitors lock horns over housing and fighting erosion on an island off the coast of Massachusetts.

October 26, 2017

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Josh Posner watches where he puts his feet. Behind him sits his beachfront home in Nantucket’s village of Siasconset; in front of him, a 60-foot drop down to the shore. As Posner ambles through the chest-high flowers, keeping the plants intact for his son’s upcoming backyard wedding is at odds with his aim of getting close to the edge of the bluff. Peering down at the sand that slopes to a 45-degree angle, he points out the long tubes running across the beach that brace the sandy cliff and keep the homes in his neighborhood from toppling into the Atlantic Ocean.

It’s an obvious-sounding mission: fighting beach erosion to preserve the house that his parents built decades ago and that he returns to every summer from his home base in Boston, where he works as an affordable housing developer. But the many peculiarities of Nantucket, a 47-square-mile island located about 30 miles off the coast of Massachusetts, combine to make those tubes highly controversial—a symbol of both the power of a handful of summer residents to shape the island’s future and the futility of fighting nature with money.

Posner is the president of the Sconset Beach Preservation Fund (SBPF), a group of Sconset (the nickname for the Siasconset area) homeowners founded by about two dozen people in the 1990s that has spent the last decade fighting the erosion that threatens its members’ vacation homes. Baxter Road, the closest street to the ocean, runs parallel to the bluff (the name for a type of cliff in a coastal area). Cars parked in driveways sport “Retreat will not save ’Sconset” bumper stickers. That’s a battle cry of sorts, marking their determination to remain in place and combat the erosion, rather than run from it. Their attempts have at various times pitted them against local politicians, environmental activists, and fishermen.

Ten years ago, the SBPF considered a project that would have involved taking large volumes of sand from elsewhere and putting it on the beach, expecting it to erode over time and regularly be replaced. In response, a group called Nantucket Coastal Conservancy assembled to stop the plan. Its roughly eight active members are all island residents who feel strongly about protecting the beaches against the actions of wealthy homeowners. They even have their own competing bumper stickers, which read, quite simply, “Erosion happens.” The group, joined by local fishermen who were concerned about the project’s impact on the fish habitat, succeeded in getting SBPF to withdraw its proposal.

Holly Ladd/Creative Commons

Erosion threatening a house on Nantucket's Smith's Point

SBPF’s latest idea made it a lot further than that plan—all the way to the beach itself, where four layers of geotubes now rest. Made of high-strength polypropylene and filled with sand, each tube is about seven feet high, 19 feet wide, and 100 to 200 feet long, stacked like stadium seats up the bluff. They stretch about 950 feet across the beach and are covered in sand, which erodes in place of the bluff and gets replaced by more sand, which is taken from on-island sand pits, driven to the beach, and dumped over the bluff’s edge. The entire project has been self-funded by SBPF members, but some residents argue that it has cost the town in time and energy diverted from initiatives that could benefit the broader population.

“Suffice to say that it is expensive,” Posner says. “Just not as expensive as watching everything wash into the ocean.”

In a 2014 letter to Town Manager C. Elizabeth Gibson, Nantucket resident Toby Sackton summed up the debate around the issue. “Naturally we have seen many changes in Nantucket over the years, but most of us have felt the heart and soul of this unique island has remained intact despite the impact of enormous homes and wealthy visitors,” he wrote.

However, Sackton continued, “We do not believe that wealth buys the right to harm our unique heritage of open beaches and yearly changes in response to natural forces.” He went on to address the geotube project specifically: “I feel that SBPF's approach to Nantucket is to destroy the Island in order to save it. … I am sorry for those affected, but I feel buyers on this Island should know the risks they face, and not come running to taxpayers with a futile plan that harms everyone else just for the sake of a few extra years.”

 

SINCE POSNER FIRST visited Nantucket with his parents nearly 60 years ago, the island has become a popular vacation destination for the wealthy. Some reports rank Nantucket County as home to the most expensive housing in the country and the most expensive place to raise a child. The average home price is now over $2 million. This wealth is most visible in the summer months, when the island’s occupancy jumps from its year-round population of about 10,500 to as many as 60,000.

For those 10,500 people, life on Nantucket can be very different than that experienced by summer visitors. Tucker Holland, the town’s independent housing consultant, moved to the island with his family about four years ago. And once they arrived, they kept moving. “People do what’s called the Nantucket shuffle,” he says. “I did it with my own family. You move from place to place to cobble together being here.” After a couple years, he lucked out and found a long-term rental. “The person who owns our home made a conscious decision to say, I want to support the year-round workforce,” says Holland. “And they’re making a sacrifice in terms of revenue.”

A number of affordable housing projects are underway, but they won’t be sufficient to meet the considerable need. As Holland explains, “We have need at every single income level. Even people making what you would consider being good money struggle to find stable, suitable, affordable-to-them housing.” The Massachusetts state legislature is now considering a bill, spearheaded by Holland, that would impose a .5 percent fee on all real estate sales on the island over $2 million to go towards a Nantucket affordable housing trust.

Yuangeng Zhang/Shutterstock

Made of high-strength polypropylene and filled with sand, geotubes are a powerful tool against erosion. 

But in the meantime, year-round islanders are exhausted by their never-ending quest for housing. “I don’t want to use hyperbole,” Holland cautions, “but I will say, weekly, you hear about someone who a friend of a friend knows or you know directly who said, ‘I’m tired of sleeping on a couch or doing the Nantucket shuffle, and I want to go and be able to have an affordable-to-me home base.’”

The juxtaposition between year-round residents struggling to find affordable housing and seasonal visitors using their wealth to preserve their real estate investments—dropping in value as erosion increases—is stark. The summer people want to maintain their vacation homes at any cost; the islanders just want one home—and stability. Some animosity between the two groups is hardly surprising: these permanent residents wield much less power and have a lower profile than their summer cohabitants.

 

WHILE HOME VALUES and rental rates have skyrocketed, some things have remained the same: namely, the beach’s erosion, which has stubbornly refused to accommodate the houses built on the bluff’s edge. On average, Sconset bluff erodes about three feet per year, with up to 30 feet disappearing during a particularly bad storm in 2013. “The problem with Nantucket is it’s right on the open ocean,” explains Mark Borelli, a coastal geologist at the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown, Massachusetts. “It gets a beating all the time. That coastline receives a lot of wave energy, so it’s more apt to erode more quickly.”

Nantucket was formed by the movement of glaciers during the Ice Age. About 20,000 years ago, when ice sheets melted and sea levels rose, water separated two land masses, Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, from Cape Cod. Since then, Sconset bluff has bordered Nantucket’s eastern edge, going from the neighborhood’s small town center to the historic Sankaty Head lighthouse, where the bluff climbs to a height of about 70 feet. For as long as the beach has existed, the bluff has been eroding, a natural process whereby a bluff’s edge moves landward, threatening any structures that have been built nearby.

In Sconset, a common response to erosion has been to pick up one’s home and move it landward—an idea that many outsiders find mind-boggling but is business-as-usual on Nantucket. Ten years ago, Posner hired a company to jack up his house and build a new foundation 65 feet closer to the road. “This bluff, when we first moved here, was kind of a gently rolling hill with a path that then went down to a big wide dune and then got to the beach. So the beach was way out there,” he says, motioning towards the ocean. “Now it’s a pretty steep cliff, and then a crack formed in our front yard, so we realized it was time to back up.” At that time, the bluff was about 15 feet further out than it currently is.

Despite these actions, Baxter Road residents always knew that solutions would need to grow more dramatic if they intended to keep their homes on solid ground. The geotubes are a key part of that response. According to Posner, the cost to the SBPF for the initial installation three years ago was approximately $2.5 million, although a multi-phase permitting process, including appeals to state environmental agencies and courts, drove up those costs by more than $1 million over three-plus years. The cost of ongoing monitoring of potential impacts on neighboring beaches runs in the low hundreds of thousands of dollars each year—far in excess of anything similar anywhere in the state, he claims. The biggest cost by far is the annual delivery of the sand that gets washed away in storms. He says that local island sand pits have doubled their price over the past couple of years from $25 per cubic yard to $50.  SBPF uses between 10,000 and 20,000 cublic yards per year depending on the severity of the storms in a given year. 

When it comes to erosion control, people often talk about “hard” and “soft” structures, with hard structures more effectively stopping erosion but, some argue, also harming the beach and the surrounding environment. Hard structures are also not permitted to protect buildings constructed after 1978, according to the Massachusetts Wetlands Protection Act. On Baxter Road, however, a few of the homes predated the statute, giving the SBPF more options.

The geotubes—hard structures—have been in place since January 2014, but they remain controversial, despite being a tested erosion-control measure in places like Florida and North Carolina. The local Conservation Commission, which had to grant a permit to SBPF for the project, denied it the first time. “They felt that there were other, more environmentally sensitive ways that you could essentially do a similar project than what was proposed,” says Jeff Carlson, Nantucket’s Natural Resources Coordinator and the Commission’s administrator.

Some also worry about the long-term commitment to geotube upkeep. “If the group that’s maintaining that structure were to disband or become financially insolvent, what do you do?” asks Carlson, an island resident since 2000. “Does the town take up the cost of maintaining that structure? Does the town say, ‘Well, we can’t afford to maintain that structure. We need to remove that structure.’ I think that’s a discussion that is still ongoing.”

The SBPF responded to the Conservation Committee’s rejection by appealing to the state. “[Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection] did issue a superseding order of conditions”—an order overriding the local committee—“back in 2013,” says Katie Gronendyke, press secretary for the state Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs. The state approved the plan in late 2013 with a handful of conditions, including monitoring environmental impacts, but mandated that SBPF return to the Conservation Commission for local approval under an emergency certification.

(Gronendyke declined to comment beyond the DEP’s 2014 letter to SPBF outlining the conditions of their approval and declined to answer questions about statewide erosion control efforts and the specifics of their decision to override the local decision on the geotubes.)

That emergency was Baxter Road itself. Less than 30 feet from the bluff, a thoroughfare lined with public utilities, including water and sewage, that serves as the neighborhood’s access route for emergency vehicles could not fall victim to erosion. The geotubes were installed. Despite his reservations about the project’s long-term impact on the beach, Carlson concedes that the project had to move forward. “This project also comes as a bit of a benefit to the town because it’s not a big secret that the town has infrastructure that we can’t afford to lose,” he says.

So far, everyone agrees that the tubes have succeeded in preventing erosion; the SBPF is even looking to expand them another 3,500 feet. Yet there is more to the question of the geotubes’ success than the number of feet that have or haven’t eroded since their installation, argues Emily MacKinnon, a resource ecologist with the Nantucket Land Council, a local nonprofit dedicated to protecting the island environment. But now that they’re in place, the key is mitigation. “We were definitely opposed to the installation of the geotubes,” MacKinnon says. “I think the question is still out there as to, over time, whether the complete project will be successful as far as preventing environmental impacts.” Plus, she adds, “the last few winters have been pretty mild. I don’t know that they’ve really been tested.”

 

NASA/Public Domain

An aerial photo of Nantucket 

ONE WORRY IS THAT the geotubes are redirecting wave energy elsewhere, leading to increased erosion on the parts of the beach that they don’t protect, as well as on the beach directly in front of them. Another is that the on-island sand pits will run out and SBPF will need to use offshore sand sources. Some people also support the use of a softer version of the geotubes. Made out of coconut fiber, a few can be spotted in front of some Baxter Road properties. They cause less damage but are almost guaranteed to fall apart in storms. The geotubes, on the other hand, can withstand storms but will lose the sand that covers them and need to have it replaced quickly—a problem when back-to-back storms don’t allow time for replenishment.

When Tropical Storm Jose dropped six inches of rain on Nantucket in September, the geotubes performed well, preventing any erosion. The sand on their surface washed away but, according to Posner, SBPF replenished it after the storm passed.

On top of those concerns, all the stakeholders agree that climate change will only exacerbate these problems. “As sea level rises, waves are going to be breaking further up on the beach, further up on the bluff,” explains Borelli, the coastal geologist. “They’re going to happen more often because waves that haven’t been able to get to the beach, with sea level rise now will.”

With that develpment on the horizon, the debate hinges on how much value the town places on the expensive homes—and the real estate taxes they generate— and their owners’ nostalgia in this battle against the unforgiving power of wind and waves. Posner argues that the geotubes are actually an environmentally responsible method and thinks some of the opposition has been purely ideological. “There’s a little bit of a fun around ‘these are a bunch of rich people who are protecting themselves and don’t care who else they hurt,’” he says. But, he asks, emphasizing the neighborhood’s long past and SBPF’s refusal to retreat, “Maybe we don’t need to move a historic community?”

Critics of the geotubes understand SBPF’s desire to protect homes that are both financial investments and places laden with family memories, but they don’t feel that outweighs the environmental consequences of hard structures. “For me, ideally, a beach is better left to its own devices,” explains Peter Brace, an environmental journalist involved with Nantucket Coastal Conservancy who first moved to the island in 1992. Today, he runs a guided hiking service.

Brace sits on a bench in a small Sconset park with his dog at his feet, about a mile down the road from Posner’s home. He refers to SBPF members as “one percenters,” saying that they could all afford to just move their homes to other places on the island, although he gets why they don’t love that suggestion. Brace also gets that erosion control is ongoing and inevitable, the bluff’s threat of encroachment no match for those beachfront views.

“A lot of people build on the coast thinking that they’re going stop the ocean,” he says. “I don’t think any one group should have the right to come in and, just for the sake of protecting their financial interests, destroy something like that: I think it’s wrong.” “But,” Brace adds, “it’s big money and our little group certainly doesn’t have their money.” 

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