The Battle for the Bluff
by: John Stanton
photography by: Jim Powers and Nicole Harnishfeger
The 30-year battle with erosion on the Sconset Bluff has become more than about finding a workable and acceptable engineering solution to save the houses along Baxter Road from falling into the sea, as the 80-foot bank they were built on crumbles.
It has become a battle over the existential question of how we might live this close to nature. On one side is the idea that you can find an engineering remedy for erosion. On the other is the belief that it is sacrilege to not simply let nature run its course.
“The difficulty is sorting through what is right and what is acceptable,” Select Board member Matt Fee said. “My take is unfortunately it’s been politicized, not Republicans and Democrats, but in a Nantucket way. People who live here (year-round) and people who don’t. It has sucked up so much time for everybody that now I worry if there is any way to find a solution. It’s going to be difficult finding a way.”
The path along the bluff has been filled with powerful passions, with people forced to pick sides and different interpretations of science depending on which side you are on, with local boards and commissions, with lawyers and appeals.
Asked for his thoughts on how it will all end, Fee laughed to himself. Then he said, “That’s a loaded question.”
Mr. Flagg’s Plan
You could start this story the day everybody went to appeals court once again, which is where it stands now, waiting for the COVID-19 pandemic to resolve itself so a decision can be handed down.
In the summer of 2019 the Nantucket Conservation Commission denied an expansion of the Sconset Beach Preservation Fund’s latest erosioncontrol plan by a vote of 4-3. That vote was overturned on appeal by the state’s Department of Environmental Protection. Because the commission’s decision was based on both state law and a town bylaw, it was also appealed to Superior Court on Nantucket. After the DEP overruled the ConCom’s ruling, both sides also appealed for reasons of their own. And now everybody waits.
But maybe it is best to begin in the beginning. In 1873. That was the year a man named William Flagg bought a large parcel of land along the bluff in Sconset, from Sankaty Head to the beginning of the village. His deal with the Proprietors of the Common Undivided Land gave him ownership to the foot of the bluff. The proprietors kept ownership of the beach. He built himself a house to live in during the summer. He began to sell lots along the bluff.
The houses overlooked the ocean. The bluff was fully vegetated and you could walk down it to a series of sand dunes and finally to the ocean. Eventually, some of the homeowners had wooden stairways built that led down the gently angled bluff to the beach.
The bluff remained remarkably stable for the next century. A summer community grew up, centered around Baxter Road. In the early 1950s Nathaniel Benchley, who wrote “The OffIslanders,” later made into the movie “The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming,” bought Flagg’s house.
John Steinbeck rented the house while he was working on “East of Eden.” It is now owned by Amos Hostetter, who remembers that after the sale there was a request to remove a small window pane that the Benchley family wanted for a keepsake. Steinbeck had jokingly etched on the window, “Peter Benchley is an old fart.”
“My family had been coming here for years and finally had the opportunity to buy a house,” said Rob Benchley, who grew up summers in Sconset and for the last three decades has made it his home.
“They loved the whole idea. For years it was a lot of families in a lot of houses up and down the bluff. I think they just appreciated the fact that they knew their neighbors. It was just family stuff. People loved coming up here. It was people who came for the whole summer. The kids came up and the cousins and everybody. It was always a safe place to be.”
There are two kinds of history. One is primary-source history, the stuff of dates and places. The other resides in personal memories. When Margaret McQuade remembers summers on the bluff she sees the beauty of nature and the way her own personal history grew there.
“It was more important to me in that I found the water and the view, and the changes in light, the wind, just fascinated me. I called it soul food. It was just enormously powerful for me. The freshness of the air, always,” she said.
“We raised our child on the bluff. I have six godchildren and nieces and nephews and they all came every summer. It is a home place for my family and for my larger family as well.”
The erosion came as a shock. In one storm in the 1990s the McQuades lost 30 feet. Finally, seeing no other choice, they moved their house. Like Benchley, they no longer live on Baxter Road.
It is helpful to imagine the changes erosion has made on Sconset Bluff as if it were a piece of time-lapse film spanning three decades. The postcards and archival images of the bluff when it reflected the easy summertime attitude of the neighborhood give way to a series of newspaper photos that show the increasing devastation.
In 1980 it was estimated the bluff was eroding at a rate of eight feet each year. Homeowners, who could see that their back yards were disappearing and their homes were getting dangerously close to the edge, began to move them.
In 1990 a group of Baxter Road homeowners, calling themselves the Sconset Beach Preservation Fund, hired a coastal geologist named Frank Fessenden and began thinking about whether there could be an engineering solution to the erosion that was now ravaging the bluff.
“The bluff in front of us was fully vegetated. We had a path you could walk to the bottom, then about 300 feet of dune before you got to the beach,” Josh Posner said of his summertime childhood home. “We had a little deck partway down the bluff where you could sit and read.”
By the time the last century was giving way to this one, it had all changed. One day in 2006, Posner looked over the edge of the bluff. Erosion was beginning to undercut the bank. He could see a crack in the lawn under his feet. It felt as if the entire thing was ready to give way.
“I said, well, I guess we gotta get outa here. It is not a question of if, it’s a question of when,” said Posner, now the president of the SBPF.
“The bluff is now very steep and eroded. It started to erode 30, maybe 35 years ago. Eventually, we moved our house as far back on the lot as we could.”
Today the plan to protect Sconset Bluff from erosion is based around two elements: Protecting the toe of the bluff from the power of Atlantic storms and high-energy waves, and mimicking the natural erosion and accretion of sand by providing sacrificial sand.
Instead of rock revetments, which were the material of choice at one time, something called geotubes are used. They are elliptically-shaped bags of sand, seven feet high and 20 feet long. They are stacked in tiers of four, with the bottom one buried below the sand. Truckloads of sand are poured over them at regular intervals.
The Sconset Beach Preservation Fund
Helmut Weymar and his wife Caroline rented a house on Baxter Road every August from 1974-1986, until the day the house came on the market and they bought it. An engineer and an economist by training, Weymar embraced the puzzle of erosion protection and could see how it could be funded privately, given the value of the homes on Baxter Road. He pulled together the people to form the SBPF.
“I spend most of my time at my desk, on my computer, but my desk overlooks the ocean and that is a kind of Zen experience in itself,” he said.
“That’s the addiction for me. There is very much a community on Baxter Road. We know our neighbors and spend a considerable amount of time with them.”
In 2008, the SBPF proposed dredging 1.8 million cubic yards of sand from Bass Rip Shoal offshore to replenish the beach.
“Every four or five years you’d dredge lots of sand and make the beach 150 feet wider than it now is,” Weymar said. “It washes away and five years later you keep doing that. It’s a pretty expensive proposition but quite doable and quite common.”
A referendum question about the proposal on that year’s ballot failed by a vote of 2,986-470. The defeat was fueled by opposition from local sport fishermen and charter-boat captains. The sand was to be dredged from a prime striped bass fishing spot, and the worry was it would disturb the ecosystem that drew the big fish.
The engineering part of the project has been through several iterations.
In 2013 there came a fierce nor’easter that hammered the island for two straight days and nights. Wind gusts reached 70 miles per hour. There was an unusually high tide of 6.4 feet, about three feet higher than normal.
The storm ripped away enough of the buff, 30 feet in some places, that one house had to be torn down.
“On Saturday morning, the main section of the house was perched at the very edge of the property, one of its decks protruding out into empty space, while waves pounded at the base of the bluff and undermined its foundation,” Joshua Balling wrote in The Inquirer and Mirror.
The storm also increased the chances that Baxter Road itself might be compromised by erosion, which would cut off access to the main road, 15 homes and Sankaty Head Lighthouse. The lighthouse had been moved back from the bluff in 2007. The town now found itself with a legal obligation to those properties, not just access to the homes but maintenance of the underground utilities.
Two months after the storm, the Select Board learned a plan to create a road between Baxter Road and Polpis Road, which would include property taken by eminent domain and cross part of the Sankaty Head Golf Course, would cost almost $4 million.
Although the dredging project had been shot down, some Select Board members indicated a willingness to join forces in a publicprivate partnership with the SBPF to find another solution. The SBPF urged the town to declare the situation an emergency, to expedite the permitting process.
It took a year of negotiations for the Select Board and the SBPF to reach an agreement. The memorandum of understanding included alternative access routes to be used as a last resort, if they did not stop erosion.
“We reached out and said we think there is a way to protect the road so it doesn’t have to be closed,” Posner said. “If you work with us, we’ll work with you so you won’t have to take the property by eminent domain. It was going to be a mess if it wasn’t done in a cooperative way.”
“The written memorandum called for installing a 3,000-footlong rock revetment, running from the lighthouse to where erosion had advanced, and working with neighbors and the golf course to find an alternative route if it didn’t work. Rock was replaced with geotubes and the whole thing turned into a test program.”
Geotubes were installed along 950 feet of the bluff, instead of 3,000 feet. The idea, said Posner, was to give it a few years and see if it worked.
In the summer of 2019, the SBPF went back to the ConCom seeking to expand the project another 3,000 feet. They were denied. Soon appeals were being filed in Boston.
Whatever the legal outcome, hardly anybody on either side will have their minds changed.
Which Side Are You On?
Weymar says the lessons of the last 30 years, watching the bluff erode and fighting to find a way to stop that erosion, have mainly been about politics.
“The lesson is that on a sand-pile island, in a sea-level-rising ocean, for a community to decide you cannot do this kind of thing to preserve a historic community, the lesson is politics are unpredictable and not necessarily rational. I get there is a quite well-organized group in opposition. You’ve got to give D.
Anne political credit. But Nantucket simply cannot sensibly avoid doing manmade stuff on its waterfront if it plans to be here for another 300 or 500 years,” he said.
D. Anne is D. Anne Atherton. She is the driving force behind the formation of The Nantucket Coastal Conservancy. A hint to its position in this matter could be seen in the name of its first website: leavenantucketalone.org. That website, according to The Inquirer and Mirror, contained the headline, “Leave Perfect Alone.”
The group has enough local political power that at a Special Town Meeting in October 2018 it was able to wrest decisionmaking control on coastal-erosion projects away from the Select Board, requiring Town Meeting approval instead.
Atherton, the group’s spokesperson, insists that the only solution to erosion is to move houses out of the way. A gradual retreat. The group’s concern, she said, is the protection of public beaches, and the beach in front of Sconset Bluff is the island’s longest public beach. She does not think it is right that private citizens build erosion-control systems on a public beach.
She worries about Nantucket becoming a place ringed with rock revetments with small coves for swimming.
“Hard structures (such as rock revetments and geotubes) try and hold the line rather than work with Mother Nature,” she said. “You cannot have a hard installation and still have a beach. That is just something not good for Nantucket or good for our beaches.”
Andy Bennett is the former chairman of the Conservation Commission. He has seen more than a few debates over different SBPF proposals. One of his last official votes was against expanding the geotubes. After years of a front-row seat to this fight, he says he is tired of the resentment it has brewed and the hard lines people have drawn.
“I get tired of people criticizing each other, questioning some of the data and some of the people getting the data,” he said. “I think for the most part everybody is going by the book.”
“There are definitely people who aren’t crazy about wealthy people, period,” he said. “The island has these two faces. Night and day. Some people resent it, but at the same time it is kind of comical because that’s how this island survives.”
None of this is a matter of public funding. At least not yet. The town is not paying anything for the bluff-protection work now being done by the SBPF.
Weymar estimates the value of the homes on Baxter Road average about $5 million each. The geotubes cost about $1,500 per foot. So, if a house has 100 feet of frontage on the bluff, that is $150,000 for installation. The sand that must be poured over the geotubes, to replace what is taken away in the normal course of events that makes its way to other beaches, brings the cost to about $250,000, he said.
Posner estimates that close to $10 million has been spent trying to stop erosion on the Sconset Bluff, including installation, the cost of permitting, lawyers and all the sand it requires.
He thinks the SBPF is on the right track now. He says there has been no erosion behind the geotubes since they were installed, and no negative effects to neighboring beaches. The DEP decision to overturn the ConCom’s denial of the expansion agrees with him. There is also an escrow account to pay for removing the entire system, if it is proven not to be working. He sees no other route to dealing with erosion.
“There have been false starts, but now we are sort of onto something that’s working,” he said. “This is pioneering stuff. It’s not like going down to Home Depot and buying an erosion-protection kit.”
Blair Perkins spends a good part of his life on the water. He grew up surfing and fishing. These days he owns and operates the eco-tour company Shearwater Excursions, and has seen the process of the shifting shoreline firsthand. He is adamant in his argument that what is called hard armoring a beach – most often with rock revetments but he argues geotubes also fit the definition – will only result in scouring at both ends and the eventual loss of the beach.
“You have to know about the littoral cells around the island, the entire system of shoals, tides, sand transport and interaction with the shoreline,” he said. “Here we have shoals going out 100 miles to the southeast and Muskeget and Tuckernuck to the west. There are so many different factors that affect how the whole process works. If you take part of that littoral system away, you will eventually see the effects.”
Erosion, he argues, is simply a natural process, especially on an island. He would not like to see anybody fight erosion anyplace on Nantucket. The only solution, he believes, is a managed retreat.
Hostetter’s guest house on Baxter Road is the house that William Flagg, the man who started it all, lived in. He is active in climatechange preparedness and waterfront-resiliency efforts in Boston. He is co-chair, with Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, of the Green Ribbon Commission, which is planning steps to protect the city’s waterfront from climate-change-driven rising sea levels.
“I am constantly struck by the total disconnect from these issues on Nantucket, which as an island is even more vulnerable than Boston. Somehow the 1960s mantra ‘don’t mess with Mother Nature’ still controls the conversation. Nantucket, particularly the historic areas, has no option but to immediately start ‘messing with Mother Nature’,” he said.
Fee understands the decisions that wait just down the road as sea levels continue to rise.
“I think what we’re experiencing is sort of at the tip of the spear,” he said.
An aerial view of the Sconset Bluff area taken on June 20, 2013 reveals how perilously close to the edge of the bluff some of the homes on Baxter Road are.
Sea-level rise, like erosion, will eventually be an existential argument over how to live next to the ocean. And when the rising water makes life untenable for people with homes on Hulbert Avenue, will the SBPF’s geotubes be the answer?
“In some cases around the island it may be the best option,” Fee said. “I mean with critical infrastructure or the sewer beds or the airport. I’m not saying this is the best thing ever, but in certain circumstances it may be the best option.”
But whatever happens in appeals court, he does not see it stopping the arguments.
“Another big question in all this is that you gotta solve for the sand,” he said. “How do we do that? There will be arguments over all of that.” ///
John Stanton is a writer and documentary filmmaker. Last year he wrote an awardwinning five-part series for The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821, entitled “Rising Sea Levels: The New Normal?” He writes frequently for Nantucket Today and The Inquirer and Mirror.