Calling Sconset’s Bluff -Winter 2013
by: Lindsay Pykosz
photography by: Jim Powers and Nicole Harnishfeger
EROSION is nothing new on Nantucket. It’s been slowly eating away the shoreline since glaciers first formed the island more than 20,000 years ago.
The most damage occurs when strong waves coincide with the highest tides. That usually happens in the winter and early spring, increasing the impact of already dangerous nor’easters.
The area along portions of Baxter Road on the island’s far east end have become the most vulnerable to the power of the ocean and the wind for the better part of two centuries. The homes that line the shore up to the candy-cane-painted Sankaty Lighthouse have experienced some of the worst erosion Nantucket has seen.
This winter, one Baxter Road home fell victim to the eroding Sconset Bluff, while over the years a number of homeowners have made the difficult and sometimes heartbreaking decision to literally pick up their houses and move them to a safer location further inland, further down the road – out of harm’s way-at least temporarily – and in one instance, all the way to Monomoy.
For some, the houses they live in have been in their families for generations, and they will do whatever they can to protect them. Thus, the seemingly neverending battle against Mother Nature.
New England’s oldest mountains began pushing up from the earth 750 million years ago. Nantucket, a relative baby in geological terms, is only about 18,000 years old. During the last ice age, the southern advance of giant glaciers, some hundreds of yards thick, pushed sand, gravel, clay and other sediments out to sea to form the crescent-shaped island 30 miles off Cape Cod.
Eventually, the massive Laurentide ice sheet stopped in the middle of the Atlantic, with the front edge of the ice lying along Nantucket’s east-west axis in the general vicinity of where Madaket and Milestone roads are laid out today.
Just behind that line was deposited the rubble known as a terminal moraine, a pattern of pushed-up hills that makes up Altar Rock and the ridges along Polpis Road.
The outer edges of the island are made up of a more sandy, pebbly material, which has a tendency to erode quickly when subjected to pounding surf.
The concept of erosion is really quite simple: Waves pound the shore, and remove sand when they retreat. It seems at times to be random, but in reality destructive erosion is due in large part to the shifting of offshore sandbars that focuses wave force on different
parts of the shoreline.
Erosion is a cyclical process, and has to do with the configuration of those offshore sandbars. When breaks develop in the offshore bars, they direct the wave energy at specific spots on the shore, leading to concentrated erosion.
The destructiveness of erosion can also be exacerbated by an effect called storm surge, when ocean waves swell up under areas of very low pressure to much higher heights than normal.
The eastern shoreline has seen a number of attempts at controlling or slowing erosion over the years, most notably by a group of Sconseters who were concerned about the shrinking beaches and crumbling bluffs. Labeling themselves the Sconset Beach Preservation Fund (SBPF), the group, many of them Sconset homeowners themselves, formed in 1992.
Aside from working to protect their own homes, the group has focused its efforts on saving other important structures like Sankaty Light, the historic Bluff Walk along Baxter Road, Codfish Park, the Sconset public beach and the Sconset wastewater-treatment facility.
Its experimental methods have run the gamut from dune-guard fencing, burlap mats and planting beach grass to a large-scale dewatering system designed to reduce erosion by pumping water out of the sand so it could absorb more of the wave activity. Ultimately, its effectiveness was spotty and it did not provide consistently good protection.
More recently, the SBPF has been aggressively leading the fight to protect the Sconset Bluff. Just this summer, it laid out an erosion-control proposal that would stretch for nearly a mile along the beach between 51 and 119 Baxter Road. The project, aimed at hard-armoring the bluff, would consist of geotextile filter fabric and layers of rock to protect the bluff from the effects of a 100-year storm.
The proposal followed the damage caused by Hurricane Sandy last October and the subsequent winter storms that pounded many areas of the bluff, forcing the demolition of the sprawling summer home at 87 Baxter – already moved back from the bluff in 2007 – and a nearby garage, and leaving some portions of Baxter Road just feet from the edge. With many homes and the road itself in peril, the Board of Selectmen voted in June to endorse a public-private partnership with the SBPF to pursue the project.
Many Sconset homeowners spoke out in desperation to the Conservation Commission in favor of the project, saying it was the last chance to save their homes.
Margaret McQuade of 97 Baxter Road said she doesn’t have to worry about what might happen to her house or the beach, because it’s already happening.
“It is going, and it is going very, very fast,” she said. “I have been on Nantucket since the 1960s, on the bluff since the 1980s, and it matters to me. I do think it’s an important, historic part of this island. What is the best possible assessment of what can be done to help all of us, and save this little piece of Nantucket Island?”
On the other end of the spectrum are those against the project and fighting on the side of Mother Nature. Members of the Nantucket Coastal Conservancy, working to monitor erosion-control projects to ensure there are no negative impacts on surrounding beaches, have brought forward reports from geologists who believe the latest proposal requires too much managing and monitoring.
The SBPF had hoped to secure approval for the hard-armoring project and begin construction prior to this year’s storm season, but conceded in early fall it would have to be delayed until at least next year if approved, given the impending winter and ongoing regulatory-approval process.
In the interim, given the potential for coastal erosion to cripple public infrastructure along the eastern shoreline this winter, the Board of Selectmen has been making contingency plans.
An emergency project – separate and distinct from the ongoing SBPF plan – to protect the most vulnerable portions of Baxter Road and an effort to develop plans to provide access and utilities in the event erosion claims the public way along the Sconset Bluff, were endorsed at an Oct. 2 Selectmen’s meeting.
With the SBPF as a co-applicant, the town submitted plans to the Conservation Commission to temporarily stabilize Baxter Road. The project – in mid-October still working its way through the regulatory process – called for the installation of sand-filled geotextile tubes along the toe of the bluff, an approach recommended by the town’s engineering consultant.
Also in the works is the formulation of an action plan to provide vehicular access and utilities, including water and sewer services, to the residences at the northern end of Baxter Road in the event it is breached by erosion. The plan will feature so-called “springing easements” with property owners in the area to provide an alternative roadway. The agreements would only be triggered in the event the road was claimed by erosion. That effort, including engineering and design services for an alternative roadway, as well as surveys, easement-taking plans and appraisals, would be funded by the SBPF, but only if the emergency bluff-protection project is permitted by the Conservation Commission and implemented, SBPF attorney Steven Cohen said. The sand-filled geotextile bags that the town and the SBPF hope to install have been used on Nantucket before. The ConCom denied Sheep Pond Road homeowner Gene Ratner’s application for the structures, but the island agency was eventually overruled by the state Department of Environmental Protection. Former commission members called Ratner’s efforts “selfish” and claimed they exacerbated erosion on either side of his property and harmed the environment. Ratner’s home ultimately succumbed to erosion in September 2010.
In 1994, the full-scale battle to take back Sconset’s beaches was in full force. It was then that a controversial Danish erosion-control system that filters seawater out of the sand and returns it to the ocean through a series of pumps and pipes was installed in Codfish Park. The dewatering system was intended to reduce the amount of sand carried back to the sea by lowering the amount of water traveling across the surface of the beach. Further systems were installed along the base of the bluff in the vicinity of Sankaty Head.
Codfish Park – an enclave of former fishing shacks and servants’ quarters turned vacation cottages – was losing several feet of beach a year to erosion, and an entire row of houses on the beach side of Codfish Park Road either fell into the sea or were moved to higher ground between 1995 and 1997.
While some of the beach at Codfish Park came back, the bluff continued to erode west toward Sankaty Lighthouse, a structure that would soon be in peril.
The beacon atop Sankaty first shone on Feb. 1, 1850, warning mariners of the treacherous shoals and waters off Sconset. In 2006, what had long been feared was confirmed: the 70-foot-tall, 550-ton lighthouse was in trouble. Once perched several hundred yards from the edge of the bluff, the structure now teetered a mere 79 feet from the Atlantic, one or two storms away from a major catastrophe.
A massive undertaking to move the structure was undertaken, and in mid-October 2007, Sankaty arrived at its new home about 280 feet from the bluff at the end of Baxter Road. The move took place along a 400-foot-long, landing-strip-shaped path outlined in orange snow fence.
It is here that the lighthouse still stands, its beacon shining bright. It is safe for now, but the ultimate future of the Sconset Bluff remains unclear. One thing, however, is certain. Homeowners who live on the island’s east end will continue to try to protect what’s theirs for future generations.
Lindsay Pykosz is a staff writer at The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821.