It probably won’t command as much global attention as the royal baby, but there’s a meeting on Wednesday that will determine the future of Nantucket.
I described the issue in detail last week. Here’s the short version:
Rising sea levels are accelerating beach and bluff erosion on a short stretch of shoreline on the Eastern side of the island.
This stretch of shoreline is owned and occupied.
This winter, three successive storms gobbled up some 30 feet of the bluff, taking a couple of once-expensive houses along with it.
If the erosion is not stopped, it will soon take many more houses, along with a section of a road.
If a section of the road disappears, the municipal electricity, water, sewage, and telecommunications lines to about a dozen houses and a famous lighthouse will get cut off, along with access to the houses and lighthouse themselves.
To restore access and services to the houses and lighthouse, which the Town of Nantucket is legally obligated to provide, the Town would have to buy some new land from unwilling sellers via eminent domain and then rebuild the road and infrastructure. This will cost the Town many millions of dollars.
The owners of the property that is getting eroded have been trying for almost two decades to persuade the Town to let them spend their own money to build erosion-control measures. For almost all of this period, the Town has refused, citing conservation and environmental concerns. (The erosion-control measures, it was said, might ruin the beach, starve the ocean fisheries of important nutrients, and accelerate erosion elsewhere. And, besides, why should the Town knock itself out to save a bunch of single-season vacation houses that cost more than most island voters earn in the their entire lives?)
This spring, however, an attorney hired by the homeowners made a new and more persuasive case to the Town: The attorney reminded the Town how much tax revenue it would lose if a couple dozen more $5-$10 million houses plunged into the Atlantic. And the attorney added up the millions of dollars the Town might have to spend to build a new road, as well as the costs the Town might incur while defending itself against a “damages” lawsuit the attorney might file that would hold the Town responsible for $100+ million in property losses.
The Town found this new logic compelling.
And so, a month ago, in a 4-1 vote, the Town’s Selectmen voted to allow the deftly-named “Siasconset Beach Preservation Fund” to build a 4,000 foot “hard armour” seawall to protect the bluff, houses, and road, with construction scheduled to start later this summer.
And now, the only thing that remains between that seawall and the bluff is the Nantucket Conservation Commission.
This Commission apparently has the ability to block, or at least delay, the construction of the seawall.
So the forces on both sides are firing up their armies for the final battle.
The Siasconset Beach Preservation Fund, for example, has created a classy web site and hundreds of pages of impressive documents explaining why the seawall will do no harm and much good. After two decades of trying to save their houses, the threatened homeowners can finally see the finish line. Given the rate of erosion in recent years, they can also see another finish line, one that they desperately don’t want crossed. So time is of the essence. And the homeowners will hit the Conservation Commission with everything they’ve got.
The (less well-funded) island conservationists, meanwhile, are arguing that the seawall will destroy the beach, ruin some of the best bass-fishing grounds in the world, hose homeowners who live on either side of it (whose properties will now be “scoured” by erosion that can’t happen on the seawall), and, in any case, will only delay the inevitable. After all, the conservationists point out, Nantucket has always moved. That’s what islands like this do. Nantucket erodes on the east and builds up on the west and, as it does so, crawls slowly but inexorably toward New York. And although it’s a bummer to lose one’s house and land, this pattern has been visible for decades. If you don’t want to lose your house to erosion, the conservationists say, don’t build it on an eroding bluff. Time and tide wait for no man.
Whatever Nantucket decides to do about the bluff erosion this time will likely determine what Nantucket will do about it forever.
So this decision matters to more folks than just the folks who live on eroding Baxter Road.
The first Conservation Commission “hearing” to determine the future of Nantucket will be on Wednesday, July 24th at 4pm at the Public Safety Building on Fairgrounds Road (a.k.a., tomorrow).
Business Insider, naturally, will be there.
Van Lieu Photography has an excellent blog that documented the destruction of the bluff last winter, along with the demolition of two houses. The top picture above and the one below are courtesy Van Lieu. Click the photo for more…
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