The Squibnocket makeover is complete

Key participants share their thoughts on beach and bridge after protracted legal battle.

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Squibnocket Beach has fresh sand and is ready for the summer season. - Rich Saltzberg

Chilmark is on the verge of owning Squibnocket Beach outright, real estate it previously leased from Squibnocket Farm. The cashless transfer of the beach in exchange for permanent rights of way for Squibnocket Farm and Vineyard Land Foundation is commonly framed as a beach-for-bridge deal.

The bridge at Squibnocket Beach was completed in March. Just before Memorial Day, the restoration of the beach itself was finished, including the relocation of the parking lot.

The multiyear processes to complete these projects weren’t without friction, especially regarding the bridge. It was commissioned to replace roadway across a revetment threatened by the sea, and several lawsuits and formal complaints to state agencies were launched to prohibit or alter its construction. The combatants: Squibnocket Farm, C. White Marine, the town of Chilmark, Doug Liman, David Stork, and a group collectively known as “Ten Persons of the Commonwealth” squared off in Edgartown, Boston, and Milford. The legal grind over the bridge wasn’t without drama. In the midst of proceedings at the Dukes County Courthouse last October, Superior Court Judge Gary Nickerson startled the courtroom by announcing he was taking a drive to Squibnocket to see the area for himself. He did so, with lawyers and Superior Court Clerk Joseph Sollitto in tow. Nickerson ultimately ruled in favor of Squibnocket Farm, the well-to-do subdivision the bridge serves, and its contractor, C. White Marine. And along with the town of Chilmark, Squibnocket Farm prevailed twice before Land Court Judge Gordon Piper and also before the state Building Code Appeals Board.

The restoration of Squibnocket Beach proved far less controversial. What was once a rocky shoreline reached by a steep drop-off became a gently sloped, sandy beach, beach that’s been roundly praised by Chilmarkers.

With beach and bridge up and running, The Times reached out to some key players in the Squibnocket saga for reflections.

Chuck Hodkinson, Chilmark conservation commission administrator, quarterbacked the beach restoration project.
“In a way, this project is perhaps one example of Margaret Meade’s statement (but on a much smaller scale): “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” To me, the cooperation and contributions of private residents, town government, state government, and most importantly town voters is an example of what good government can be. The commonwealth is seemingly using this project as a ‘poster child of sorts’ on how to proactively address and pay for a managed retreat from coastal erosion and rising sea levels without needing to take costly, unplanned emergency measures.

“Five years of planning, design, permitting, and process delays was invested for eight months of construction. This has been one of the most interesting projects and puzzles to solve. Perhaps the most rewarding outcome of this challenge happened two weeks ago. I saw two young people assisting an elderly woman walk to a chair they placed on the beach facing the ocean. I thought, This could not have been possible nine months ago. I’m hoping to avoid starting another project this summer, and spend more time enjoying this special place in which we live.”

Ropes and Gray attorney Peter Alpert, who represents Squibnocket Farm, builder of the bridge (or causeway, as Alpert terms it) and conveyor of beach real estate to Chilmark.
“The results speak for themselves. If you stay on the right side of the law, the facts, and common sense, you’ll win most of the time. Huge credit is due to our stalwart clients, the board of selectmen, Chuck Hodgkinson, and town counsel Ron Rappaport. Construction of the new causeway was completed just a day or two before the March 8 nor’easter delivered a debilitating blow to the old road. An amazing coincidence, but my clients never should have been put in this dangerous position in the first place.”

Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival president and Squibnocket surfing regular Thomas Bena, a past critic of the bridge, was a participant in a Chapter 91 suit against it.
“The new beach looks beautiful, and John Keene’s team did an incredible job. I, like everyone who has been watching this issue, will be curious to see what happens as the beach continues rolling back over time.”

Jim Malkin is chairman of the Chilmark board of selectmen and the past chairman of the town’s Squibnocket committee.
“The Squibnocket process for beach, parking, and access was a great example of community involvement and regulatory compliance. It resulted in a solution that met the mandate voted by the town meeting and established by Everett Poole, the town moderator. I am proud of the process and delighted at the finished product. The town put considerable time, energy, and expense into the process, and into defending its position and decisions. All town groups and regulatory agencies did their respective work and analysis with competence and diligence; all of these groups performed their tasks openly and transparently in the best tradition of democratic process.”

Eric Peters is the chairman of Vineyard Open Land Foundation, the entity that provided land for the projects and previously designed what is now Squibnocket Farm.
“The Squibnocket Ridge subdivision is the result of over 10 years of study, planning, and design by the Vineyard Open Land Foundation on behalf of the private landowners. It was approved in 1992 after lengthy and thorough review by the Chilmark planning board and the Martha’s Vineyard Commission. VOLF supervised the construction of the subdivision road and utility infrastructure, and owns over 200 acres of conservation land there. VOLF has steadfastly supported not only the Squibnocket Ridge landowners’ desires to construct a more suitable roadway for safe and long-term access to their properties, but also the town’s desires to expand the area of beach available to Chilmark residents.

“Early on, VOLF agreed to sell a portion of its Squibnocket property to the landowners in order to advance these public interests. After five years of complicated environmental study and permitting, including the dedicated review by the town committee led by Jim Malkin, and despite the naysayers, the presently restored and expanded beach at Squibnocket and the elevated causeway for access are the wonderful result of a remarkable public process, and are due to the cooperative and diligent efforts of the town of Chilmark, the Squibnocket landowners, and the Vineyard Open Land Foundation.”

Mark Haley, vice president of Haley and Aldrich, designed the bridge for Squibnocket Farm.
Haley described the projects as “really spectacular. It’s a painting that still isn’t done yet.”

Ron Rappaport of Reynolds, Rappaport, Kaplan & Hackney, is Chilmark town counsel.
“You can’t please all the people all the time. If you take a look at the public input in this project — it was extensive. This is a thoroughly vetted project. Democracy worked.”

Dan Larkosh of Larkosh and Jackson represents film director Doug Liman and scientist David Stork, repeated opponents of the bridge. (Liman and Stork did not respond.)
“We don’t feel the bridge went through the proper process prior to being built. And we hope the Appeals Court agrees with us. It’s never really been about the beach for us.”

Larkosh described the beach as a “shiny object they dangled” to get the bridge through: “At some point that bridge is going to be over water. I believe that is inevitable.”

Warren Spector is president of Squibnocket Farm.
“We were very fortunate that the new causeway was usable one day after a major storm made the old one unsafe. We are grateful to the town of Chilmark for getting all its work done on time under difficult weather conditions, and for doing such a beautiful job.”

Chris Murphy is a member of Chilmark’s zoning board of appeals, and its former chairman.
“When the original bridge was first proposed by the selectmen and the Squibnocket Farm group, I thought it was really poorly thought out, and that they totally misunderstood the dynamics at the interface of the ocean and the barrier beach. What has eventually been built is very different and much better than the original proposal. The selectmen with much urging from many people in town eventually embraced a form of managed retreat and did a wonderful job of moving the parking area back from the very edge of the sea. The removal of the revetment and the reconstruction of the natural beach dune deserves a prize. As a community we learned a lot about how our shoreline is changing and how managed retreat will help us deal with change in the future. All good stuff, and much of it due to the guidance, patience, and good management of Chuck Hodgkinson.

“We all know the wonderful beach and parking area we see today won’t last forever, but even as it changes, we will learn more about what to do and what not do next time a fix is needed. The bridge is another story, and time will tell how it plays out. Putting an immovable structure in front of an unstoppable force is still a foolish idea, but the deal was simple. Beach for bridge. The selectmen were clear they wanted the beach, and now we have it. The Squibnocket Farm group was clear they wanted a bridge, and now they have it. Nobody died, and the bridge is just another structure put in the wrong place. It isn’t the first, and I am sure not the last. We will see how long it lasts, and what happens when it fails. The good part of the story is that the town gets more and better beach, and the town, the Island, the rest of the state gets to see a rare example of managed retreat done well and with an eye to the future.”

John Keene is president of John Keene Excavation, the general contractor for the beach project.
“I hope if you’re for it or against it or indifferent, everyone finds beauty up there.”