Norton Point beach breach debate heats
Under fire from all sides, Dukes County manager Winn Davis this week emphasized that an application for federal disaster relief money to repair Norton Point Beach was made to preserve the county's options and did not represent a commitment to any specific course of action.
The latest controversy to engulf county government followed the county manager's decision to apply for $511,000 in federal emergency disaster money, in the aftermath of a fierce coastal storm that clobbered the Vineyard the weekend of April 14.
In an application filed with MEMA (Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency) on April 20, Mr. Davis proposed using the town dredge to pump sand into the breach to repair a beach he said provides an emergency exit for 375 homeowners on Chappaquiddick.
When they learned of the plan days later, Edgartown officials and The Trustees of Reservations, the conservation organization that manages the county-owned beach, said the breach was not an emergency or a disaster.
Aerial video clip recorded Saturday by state Division of Marine Fisheries
biologist Greg Skomal. Hover over image for video controls.
All in all, it was not a good week for Mr. Davis, a Falmouth resident who appears to have overestimated the heretofore unspoken desire of Chappaquiddick residents to have an "emergency exit" in the event of a wildfire. By most accounts, residents of the easternmost end of the Vineyard are perfectly content to have a moat, at least temporarily, and do not live in fear of a wildfire.
The county manager was criticized because he did not consult Edgartown selectmen. He was labeled ridiculous for suggesting a bridge and culvert. He was lampooned for entertaining the idea that the town dredge could be used to plug a breach that is so wide and deep.
Last week, representatives of FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) and MEMA joined Mr. Davis and a small group for a site visit to survey the damage to the two-and-a-half-mile long strip of county-owned barrier beach that connected Katama to Chappaquiddick prior to the storm that hit the weekend of April 15.
Mr. Davis said the Thursday morning meeting was very informative. Based on what he heard from the FEMA representative, he said the beach qualifies for assistance.
Yesterday, the seven elected Dukes County commissioners held a special meeting to discuss Norton Point Beach with their county manager. In a telephone conversation with The Times Wednesday morning, Mr. Davis said he expected to update the commissioners.
Video of the breach taken on April 17th and 18th by Greg Whitmore of TTOR. Hover over image for video controls
Stepping back from the options outlined in the MEMA damage assessment, Mr. Davis said it was a notification of loss and the costs associated with it, namely dredging, but that it did not mean the county would dredge.
Mr. Davis said that if there were money available, the next step would be to meet with all interested parties and decide what the county should do next. However, he added, "To do nothing is still a definite possibility."
Although some county commissioners were under the impression that Mr. Davis acted on his own when he filed the MEMA report, in response to a question from The Times, Mr. Davis confirmed yesterday that he discussed the matter with Paul Strauss of Oak Bluffs, county commission chairman, on the morning of April 20.
"I spoke with him Friday morning. He is the chairman," said Mr. Davis. "We had a brief discussion. I told him what I was doing. He said, go do it, that's your job, or words to that effect."
In a telephone call Tuesday, Mr. Strauss said he called yesterday's meeting to get an update on the breach. Mr. Strauss said he continued to support Mr. Davis's efforts to seek federal disaster money. "He came to me and said, this is a possibility, we might be able to get money from them if I submit an application, and we will have to discuss what it might be used for later."
Mr. Strauss said he thought it was a rational course of action. However, Mr. Strauss said he had yet to speak with anyone who thought it would be a good idea to fill the breach.
Political breach widens over Norton Point plan. Photo by Greg Skomal
Asked why the county had applied for the funds to do something that had little or no support, Mr. Strauss pointed to the short window allowed to apply for disaster relief. "What Winn decided was, let's apply, because if we get the money we can then have a discussion about whether to use it, or how to use it. If we don't apply, there's no way we get any, and that was the basis for going forward."
Asked if he would ask his county manager to continue to pursue money for a purpose that had little public support, Mr. Strauss said he would be better prepared to comment after yesterday's meeting.
Roger Wey, an Oak Bluffs selectman and county commissioner, took an opposite tack. In a telephone call Tuesday, Mr. Wey, who was apparently unaware that Mr. Davis had consulted with Mr. Strauss, said the county manager was wrong to act so quickly and without involving Island officials.
"Emergency or not, he should have called for a meeting," said Mr. Wey. "The town of Edgartown should have been consulted before anything was done. And the county commissioners should have been consulted."
Mr. Wey said it is his view that nothing should be done at Norton Point Beach. "Let nature take its course," he said.
This week in a letter to the editor, Edith Potter, a former Edgartown selectman, Land Bank commission member, and longtime Chappaquiddick resident, said the notion that Norton Point is an escape route is "ridiculous."
Ms. Potter, a respected Island conservationist, said an uncertain beach is a fact of life and for now "we must accept Mother Nature's work."
In a telephone conversation from her Pimpneymouse Farm on Chappy Tuesday, Ms. Potter recalled the good fishing her husband enjoyed during an earlier breach more than 40 years ago. She said the general reaction from Chappy residents is that the breach is an exciting act of nature, and any inconvenience would have the benefit of slowing development.
County manager Winn Davis holds one end of a tape measure as MassHighway representative Matt Broderick looks on. Photo by Nelson Sigelman
Ms. Potter said it was appalling that Mr. Davis did not consult with Edgartown selectmen and gave the impression that he had consulted with Chris Kennedy, Trustees regional Island director. "I don't know Winn Davis," said Ms. Potter, "but he does some funny things."
Art Smadbeck, Edgartown selectman, was equally irritated with the county's lack of communication. "Nobody went to Chappaquiddick to ask the people on Chappaquiddick what they were thinking; nobody came to Edgartown to ask anybody in Edgartown what they were thinking; nobody called the Trustees of Reservations to find out what they were thinking; so I think it's a hair premature to declare a disaster and an emergency when we haven't heard from the people that it is happening to," said Mr. Smadbeck.
Mr. Smadbeck expressed concern that federal officials might see the county as the boy who cried wolf. "There may be a time in the future when we actually need this help from the state and federal government," he said. "I don't want this to have a negative impact."
Mr. Smadbeck said that regardless of the time available for Mr. Davis to respond to the state's request for damage assessments, he should have made an effort to communicate with town officials. Sometimes it is better to err on the side of caution, he said.
Mr. Smadbeck said that to apply for money on the premise that there is a community disaster when there is not a disaster, and to use that earmarked money "for something that has nothing to do with the quote-unquote disaster, sets a very poor example for everybody."
County, state and federal officials confer during a site visit to the Norton Point breach on April 29. From right to left: MEMA coordinator Doug Forbes, county emergency management director Chuck Cotnoir, MassHighway representative Matt Broderick, county manager Winn Davis, and FEMA program specialist G. Fred Vanderschmidt. Photo by Nelson Sigelman
Disaster relief is a series of steps coordinated by MEMA. In the initial phase, teams spread out across the state to assess damage. In this case, the state needed to verify $7.7 million worth of storm damage in order to qualify for federal disaster relief funds.
Gov. Deval Patrick must apply for federal disaster relief. If the president agrees it is warranted, the state would receive federal dollars.
Individual counties, including Dukes County, would then file requests for a share of any federal dollars for specific projects.
Although the county applied for $500,000 in disaster funds, any actual reimbursement would be tied to the cost of a specific project outlined in a worksheet. The history of breaches also raises the question of whether FEMA would fund any projects for a reoccurring natural event.
In a telephone interview Tuesday, FEMA spokesperson Marty Bahamonde said, "When we agree to pay that worksheet we look at what that scope is, and if it costs less to fix that, then you have to give that money back."
Mr. Bahamonde said the FEMA also considers history when spending money.
"We are not going to replace something that shows a history of constantly being damaged," he said. Although MEMA coordinates projects ultimately FEMA has the final say, he added.
Yesterday, David Belcher, Chappaquiddick TTOR superintendent, said he expected to open the Chappaquiddick side of the beach track to over-sand vehicle traffic by Friday. The Katama side was opened last week.
Mr. Belcher advised visitors and fishermen in particular to be extremely careful near the breach. Beach over-sand vehicle permits are available at the TTOR office in Vineyard Haven, the Dukes County administration building at the airport, Coop's in Edgartown, and by mail. The cost is $60 for a resident and $100 for a non-resident.
Historically, openings have occurred infrequently in the two-mile-long barrier beach that separates relatively shallow and normally placid Katama Bay from the Atlantic Ocean.
Norton Point has been breached during other storms, including the gale of January 1886, the 1938 hurricane, Hurricane Edna in 1954, and Hurricane Bob in 1991.