Living on the edge, Wasque home safe for now

A recent drone aerial photo shows just how close the home of Jerry and Susan Wacks is to the eroding bluff on Wasque Point, Chappaquiddick.
Photo by James Flynn

A recent drone aerial photo shows just how close the home of Jerry and Susan Wacks is to the eroding bluff on Wasque Point, Chappaquiddick.

On the southeastern most point of Chappaquiddick, 19 feet from the eroding bluff at Wasque Point, Jerry and Susan “Sue” Wacks’s house sits precariously close to the edge. Its fate rests with the natural forces that first attracted the couple to the remote location.

In a letter to Jerry Wacks, dated December 19, 2013, Edgartown conservation commission agent Jane Varkonda wrote; “The conservation commission conducted a site visit to your property on Monday, December 16, 2013. Since Norton Point beach eroded and migrated approximately 800 feet to the West, the erosion at your property has worsened significantly.”

The letter continued; “Therefore, to prevent the house from ending up in Katama Bay out into Nantucket Sound or washing up on adjacent beaches, which would cause damage to resource areas under our jurisdiction, the commission has the authority to issue an emergency permit for the construction of the access route and removal of the house.”

Looking west, this photo shows the migrating breach in Norton Point beach and the newly formed sandbar that has formed just off Wasque Point.

Photo by James Flynn

Looking west, this photo shows the migrating breach in Norton Point beach and the newly formed sandbar that has formed just off Wasque Point.

Built as a summer retreat in 1984, the flat-roofed, single-story home was emptied of furniture and contents in December. It is facing partial demolition of its shore side, depending on the natural forces at work, Martha’s Vineyard superintendent for The Trustees of Reservations (TTOR), Chris Kennedy said Friday.

“Right now, the Wackses are taking a wait and see approach,” Mr. Kennedy told The Times. “Nothing’s happening right now, it’s so strange. Until about a month and a half ago, that portion of Wasque Point was losing about a foot a day. But now everything’s turned eastward, and it’s provided them with some protection.”

TTOR, the private nonprofit conservation organization that manages Norton Point Beach and owns or manages much of the outer Chappaquiddick beachfront, has been keeping a close eye on the Wacks house and the continual erosion of Wasque Point.

The current cycle of erosion began in April 2007, when a one-two punch of storm-driven ocean waves and powerful spring tides scoured open a cut in Norton Point Beach. The result was two long narrow spits of sand stretching east and west toward one another. Over the past six years the cut has steadily migrated eastward toward Wasque Point.

While the rate of erosion along any shoreline is unpredictable, Mr. Kennedy said that for now, the change in tidal currents is providing some reprieve for the house.

A distant view of the breach and the sandbar. Wasque Point is to the left.

Photo by James Flynn

A distant view of the breach and the sandbar. Wasque Point is to the left.

“Right now, the erosion is pretty minimal,” Mr. Kennedy said. “But in early December, Norton Point was completely open to the ocean waves. Now, the house is in protected water.”

Geoff Kontje, a Chappaquiddick resident and general contractor for 41 Degrees North Construction, said a special permit has been issued by the Edgartown Conservation Commission for the demolition of a portion of the Wacks house, should it become necessary.

“At present, no demolition is scheduled,” Mr. Kontje wrote in an email to The Times. “All resources are in place to carry out the removal of the portion of the house nearest the bank, when and if erosion encroaches to the point that further inaction is inadvisable.”

The Wacks’s are not the only Chappaquiddick property owners to face the harsh reality of erosion. Last July, a team of engineers and moving crews completed a massive house moving effort for Rick and Jennifer Schifter of Washington, D.C., whose  8,313-square-foot, seven-bedroom main house, including its foundation, basement bowling alley, and massive two-story chimney, were moved back from the brink to an adjoining lot 275 feet away from the eroding bank at Wasque Point.

“Certainly since the Schifters moved everything back, they have a bit of room to go,” Mr. Kennedy said. “But we are losing on that end of Wasque, maybe about a foot a week.”

For now, Mr. Kennedy said they will continue to keep an eye on things.

“The Wackses may escape Armageddon here or they may not,” he said. “But right now they are afforded quite a bit of protection. We’ll see what happens here.”

Natural pattern

A 1884 map of the southeast corner of Martha's Vineyard, from Katama to Wasque Point.

Courtesy NOAA

A 1884 map of the southeast corner of Martha’s Vineyard, from Katama to Wasque Point.

The growing sandbar and migrating opening is part of a natural pattern that has been documented on charts and in studies for several hundred years.

A recent study described the process.

The Woods Hole Group (WHG), an international environmental, scientific, and engineering consulting organization headquartered in Falmouth, prepared an eight-page analysis of the historic shoreline changes and coastal geomorphology for the south-facing shoreline of Chappaquiddick for Mr. Schifter. Dated December 11, 2012, the report described the situation on Wasque Point at that time.

“The wide beach and dune resources that once existed have completely eroded, and recent erosion since August 2011 has caused a loss of 120 to 150 feet of coastal bank. When the Schifter residence was initially completed in 2006 the top of the coastal bank was approximately 200 feet away from the building, however recent erosion has brought the bank to within 73 feet of the residence,” WHG coastal geologist Leslie Fields wrote.

In her report, Ms. Fields described a three-stage pattern of geomorphologic evolution, or the science of land and undersea changes, all of which are inextricably linked to the larger coastal system.

Inlet breaching

In the first stage, ocean waves and tidal levels combine to punch a hole in vulnerable spots in a barrier beach. “Inlet breaches typically form near the center of Katama Bay, although slight variations east or west have occurred. Over the past 75 years, storm-induced breaches have developed into semi-permanent inlets on three separate occasions: 1938, 1953, and 2007. Other cuts through the barrier have also occurred; however these have been short lived.”

Spit grows, channel lengthens

During stage 2, the inlet begins to migrate east towards Chappaquiddick and the dominant easterly flowing shoreline current causes the Norton Point spit to grow. As that spit extends to the east, the barrier beach on the Chappy side of the inlet tends to shorten and erode. Often the eastern barrier will also rotate north into Katama Bay as incoming tides push sediment into the Bay. During the early phase of stage 2 the shoreline along the south side of Chappaquiddick is relatively stable, with little or no erosion. “This is true as long as the eastern barrier spit is intact and can supply sand to the south side of the Island,” according to the report.

End stage

In stage 3, the tidal channel that connects Katama Bay to the Atlantic Ocean eventually closes as tidal currents are not strong enough to flush sediment from the opening. Waves gradually push the Norton Point barrier spit to the north and the beach eventually welds onto Chappaquiddick.

The site of the previous tidal channel forms a new cat-eye pond as the barrier spit moves onto the island. This process results in a relatively quick and dramatic accretion along the south facing shoreline of Chappaquiddick as the beach/dune and cat-eye pond deposits weld onto the coastline.

Finally, during the last part of stage 3 the beach/dune system begins to retreat as ocean waves, tides, and currents cause erosion. The process continues until a new breach in the Katama Bay barrier forms and then the cycle starts over with stage 1.

In conclusion, she said, “While all information in this report is presented to the best of our understanding, there is no crystal ball that can be used to predict future shoreline and bank locations with any greater degree of accuracy.”