Oak Bluffs selectmen vote to cut down East Chop drive to one lane

In an attempt to curb East Chop drive erosion, Oak Bluffs selectmen voted to close the northbound lane between Brewster and Munroe avenues after Columbus Day. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

After lengthy discussion, Oak Bluffs selectmen voted Tuesday to restrict traffic on East Chop Drive to one lane this winter, while they look into long-term solutions and hope for government funding to repair the storm-battered road. As it was last winter, traffic will be restricted to the inside (southbound) lane between Brewster and Munroe avenues.

The crumbling corniche that wraps around East Chop bluffs and overlooks Nantucket Sound has a long history of erosion-related closures. It was closed for two years after hurricane Bob in 1991. The seaward lane was closed in November 2012 as a result of erosion from Superstorm Sandy. Three months later, winter storm Nemo caused damage that closed the road entirely for two weeks. One lane remained closed until late June of this year, when it was reopened to reduce traffic on the alternate routes that cut through residential areas of East Chop.

In August, the East Chop Association (ECA) voted unanimously to ask that East Chop Drive between Munroe Avenue and Brewster Avenue be closed by the end of September and kept closed until the bluff is stabilized or repaired. Some ECA members who attended the Tuesday meeting were visibly displeased with the selectmen’s ruling.

“As you can see, it’s not an easy fix,” selectman Michael Santoro said. “Closing the bluff [road] is going to create a lot of headaches in the neighborhoods. It’s going to take a lot of work. It’s been suggested we work with the Martha’s Vineyard Commission to help us with the traffic patterns through the neighborhoods.”

Joan Hughes, chairman of the Conservation Committee, questioned the decision. “We’re more likely to have a winter problem than a summer problem,” she said. “Nor’easters are worse than hurricanes. We feel that adding heavy loads on that bluff is dangerous. Traffic constantly undermines the stability. We’re going at our own peril. Once the bluff is gone, it’s gone.”

Craig Dripps, president of the ECA, also opposed the decision. “People forget that this road was closed for a year and a half in ’92 after Hurricane Bob and it was right through the summer,” he said. “It wasn’t easy, but it was manageable. My thought would be close it through the winter, work with the MVC, come up with proper signage, speed bumps and figure out the best option.”

Walter Vail, chairman of the selectmen, lobbied hard for a complete closure. “My inclination is to go with the board of the East Chop Association and close the road,” he said. Mr. Vail, an East Chop resident, saw firsthand that one-way signs were continually disregarded last winter by cars and by heavy trucks, and in the end did little to protect the bluff.

Ultimately, his colleagues were not moved.

Mr. Santoro said there needed to be extensive planning and signage to guide detoured traffic as safely as possible through residential areas, and he noted there were a number of East Chop residents at the August roads and byways meeting who were vociferous in their opposition to a complete closure, for this reason.

Selectman Gail Barmakian suggested improving the one-way system rather than a complete closure. “How can we close it and say it’s compromised all winter and open it both ways during the summer? I think it will be effective if we limit it to the inside lane, for now.”

Selectman Kathleen Burton suggested some more permanent signage or barriers, even though it might not be aesthetically pleasing, “You have to do what you have to do. I also think we have to ban heavy trucking. I don’t know how we do that, but I think it really needs to happen.”

“For the time being, we could agree closing it one way right now and revisit it later,” said Mr. Santoro.

“It’s not always popular to say there are other people on the Island besides those of us in Oak Bluffs and East Chop,” said selectman Greg Coogan, “So it needs to be said, closing it all winter affects other people besides East Chop. There are a lot of people who use the road, it’s a gorgeous spot. I think closing it in any kind of storm is important. Keeping any trucks we can possibly limit on that road, absolutely. But I’m not in favor of completely closing it.”

Mr. Coogan also said the ownership of the bluff had to be addressed. Technically the bluff is owned by the East Chop Association. That didn’t stop FEMA funding in 1991, after Hurricane Bob, but many, including Mr. Coogan, suspect the private ownership might play a role in the current federal funding drought.

Mr. Dripps, on behalf of the East Chop Association, offered to give the bluff to the town several years ago, but the town refused, due to liability concerns. Mr. Dripps restated the association’s desire for the town to take ownership of the bluff. The selectmen agreed to revisit the issue. In the end, the selectmen voted, 4-1, to restrict traffic to the southbound lane after Columbus Day and to do a traffic flow analysis of a complete closure on the surrounding neighborhood over the winter.

In other business, the selectmen voted unanimously to make Nashawena Park Road, which is actually two roads separated by Nashawena park, one way in each direction. The selectmen also unanimously approved an overall increase in the stipends for Oak Bluffs fire department personnel, at the request of acting Chief John Rose.