Chilmark residents applaud low causeway solution for Squibnocket Beach

Chilmarkers gathered at the Community Center Thursday night to hear a recommendation on how best to preserve parking at Squibnocket Beach and access to the Squibnocket Farm subdivision in the face of continuing erosion. —Photo by Steve Myrick

The special Chilmark committee on Squibnocket presented its recommendation for a relocation of the Squibnocket Beach town parking lot and the access road to the exclusive Squibnocket Farm subdivision at a well-attended informational meeting Thursday, December 18, at the Chilmark Community Center. There was applause for the committee’s work, and considerable support for its compromise proposal, from the more than 50 people who attended the meeting.

The committee of seven people appointed by town moderator Everett Poole was formed by a vote of the annual town meeting, a vote that effectively derailed a plan negotiated by selectmen and the Squibnocket Farm Homeowners Association to build a bridge close to the ocean shoreline for access to the subdivision.

The committee held 24 open meetings over the past six months, reviewed thousands of pages of correspondence, 13 presentations, and five expert reports, committee chairman James Malkin told those in attendance. The members visited Squibnocket several times, including all of the homes near the beach. The committee members reviewed eight access alternatives and six parking alternatives.

The committee reached consensus on a plan to create a low, 300-foot-long causeway, connected at both ends by a road at grade level. The access roadway would branch off Squibnocket Road above the current parking lot, connect to the causeway across the wetlands close to the shoreline of Squibnocket Pond, and end near the current gate that leads to the Squibnocket Farm subdivision. The committee recommended that the existing parking lot and boulder revetment be removed, so that the beach will return to its natural state. Parking would be available on both sides of Squibnocket Road, just south of the proposed access road.

Mr. Malkin explained the recommendation in a visual presentation, and Mr. Poole moderated the discussion that followed. Mr. Malkin explained how the committee arrived at its decisions by eliminating various alternatives as impractical, implausible, or too detrimental to the wetland environment.

In response to questions from the audience, Mr. Malkin described the causeway as a low structure, with the roadbed supported by pilings, so the occasional storm surge could flow under it. He noted that at the annual Chilmark town meeting last spring, there were substantially different representations of the height of the original bridge proposed by the Squibnocket Farm Homeowners Association. Using a bit of humor, he left no doubt about the height of the causeway, as Mr. Poole looked on from a lectern.

“This causeway will be the height of one Everett Poole, maybe with his hands over his head,” Mr. Malkin said.

Positive reaction

Several residents and town officials who spoke following the presentation supported the committee’s recommendation for a low causeway. Among them were selectmen Warren Doty and Jonathan Mayhew.

“Coming from our perspective, that something has to change, I would like to endorse this process,” Mr. Doty said. “I think it was a great process. It came up with an alternative that changes that parking lot and moves it back and it is the way to go.”

“I agree,” said Mr. Mayhew. “I’m very impressed. What you have done is a lot more than the three selectmen did.”

Thomas Bena, a resident who was critical of the original bridge proposal, supported a proposal to build a road behind a protective artificial dune. He asked why the committee rejected that alternative.

“You said a man-made dune doesn’t make sense, while the beach is stabilizing,” Mr. Bena said. “I’m wondering why a significantly more expensive fixed solution does make sense.”

Mr. Malkin said the committee felt that regulatory agencies discourage filling wetlands, and an artificial dune could shift as the beach regresses to its natural state, once the present revetment and parking lot are removed.

“A low causeway has less impact on the wetlands,” Mr. Malkin said, “and is therefore easier to permit.”

He also noted that just hours before the informational meeting, the town was informed in a letter from the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, that habitat around Squibnocket Pond is home to the Northern Harrier, a species of hawk protected under the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act. That triggers a review and permitting process by the Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program. The town conservation commission has regulatory authority over any project that affects wetlands. The Massachusetts Office of Coastal Zone Management has regulatory authority over the ocean shoreline.

Land dilemma

The committee recommendation hinges on negotiation with landowners that the committee members acknowledge is complex and uncertain. The road and the parking proposed by the committee would require the town to buy, lease, or acquire easements for two small lots bordering Squibnocket Road. Both are non-conforming lots under current zoning, and would need zoning variances before any structure could be built on them.

One lot is owned by Peter Weldon. The other is owned by Wendy Jeffers and Tony Orphanos.

“We have indications from Peter Weldon that he will work with the town,” Mr. Malkin said. “We hope that Orphanos/Jeffers will work with the town.”

“I think it’s important to keep the peace,” said committee member Janet Weidner. “Hopefully, the homeowners and the landowners will see the value of the solution.”

Before the meeting, Mr. Orphanos and Ms. Jeffers said they have made no decision yet. “It would be premature to comment until after after we have further discussions with the town committee,” they said in an email to The Times.

Also prior to the meeting, the Squibnocket Farm Homeowners Association said it was willing to work within the guidelines made in the committee’s recommendation for a low causeway.

“We appreciate the extraordinary effort of the town committee to find an appropriate compromise solution for access to our homes and parking for the town beach while respecting the concerns of our neighbors,” wrote Larry Lasser, president of the association, in an e-mail statement.

The committee first suggested a 90-day period for the town to negotiate any needed agreement among the town, landowners, and the Squibnocket Farm Homeowners Association, but prior to the meeting, amended that time frame to the deadline prior to town meeting for submitting articles, giving selectmen time to craft a warrant article for a special town meeting, scheduled for February 2.

It recommended that, in the event no agreement is reached on the recommended solution, the town pursue a second alternative, which closely mirrors the original plan proposed by the homeowners association, a higher causeway on land already owned by the town and the homeowners. The committee recommended that the second alternative, if implemented, should locate the bridge as far as possible away from the ocean shoreline, and as close as possible to Squibnocket Pond.

The board of selectmen is responsible for negotiating any agreement with the landowners. Mr. Doty offered an optimistic view of future land negotiations.

“The charge of this committee was to bring to the town and the board of selectmen a recommendation for solutions at Squibnocket,” Mr. Doty said. “As a member of the board of selectmen, if we hear your recommendation is a strong recommendation for a preferred alternative, it’s incumbent on the selectmen to make it happen, and I think the selectmen can do that.”