Will town government be able to deal with the changes sea-level rise will bring?

by: Brian Bushard

photography by: Nicole Harnishfeger

You do not have to look any further than Sconset to get an idea of the political battle that’s coming when the town tries to figure out how best to protect the island from rising seas.

Specifically, look at Sankaty Bluff, the epicenter of an ongoing and contentious debate that’s played out in courtrooms and regulatory hearings for over two decades, where the opposing sides are so entrenched in a political debate that compromise can sometimes seem impossible.

Chris and Cheryl Emery’s iconic stilt house in Madaket was taken down three years ago after a winter storm pounded the beach, depositing tons of sand in a washover between the beach and Hither Creek.

At its heart is 950 feet of sand-filled geotextile tubing funded by a group of homeowners on Baxter Road, designed to protect the neighborhood, but caught in a fierce debate over its merits.

Both sides call the other side liars. One side wants the project removed, arguing it escalates erosion on downdrift beaches. The other side sees it as the silver bullet to saving the neighborhood. Neither side seems willing to compromise.

Now, the town has a highly-anticipated large-scale coastal-resilience plan from a coastal-engineering firm called Arcadis, which calls for everything from dune nourishment on the south shore and raised roads and bulkheads, to a potential surge barrier running from Brant Point to the Nantucket Harbor Creeks, and in Sconset, for the geotubes to remain in place until Baxter Road is eventually relocated.

Select Board member Matt Fee believes the debate over the bluff will provide an outline for the political battle-royal that’s coming islandwide.

“Getting it done is very difficult,” said Fee, who has been trying repeatedly for the past three years to reach a compromise on the bluff project. “That whole thing is politically charged. We’re learning stuff (from that debate) that has to be used for the rest of the island.”

Town officials are now concerned about the chances of 40 multi-million-dollar projects in the coastal resilience plan making it through the gamut of town politics, starting with Town Meeting.

“If we can’t convince the taxpayers, the island might as well bend over and kiss its ass goodbye,” Conservation Commission vice-chair Ian Golding said.

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