Sound the retreat


To the Editor:

At a special town meeting on Monday, Feb. 2, Chilmark voters will be asked to take action on a recommendation to the selectmen on a direction to pursue in dealing with access to Squibnocket Point and Beach and parking at Squibnocket Beach. This is a big deal for Chilmark, but it is also a small deal for the rest of the Island. The town has spent much of the last year talking about the changes we are experiencing as the sea around us slowly continues to rise and how we will meet the challenges that face us in the near and more distant future.

Chilmark is looking at a term relatively new to us — managed retreat. This term really describes an old plan, getting out of the way of something bigger than we are, just with a fancy new handle. People have been building things too close to the ocean and getting them pushed back or destroyed for many generations, but it has always seemed that after the storm, the water went back more or less where it belonged. From our own experience, and from information we are receiving from the scientific community, it is clear the rate of sea-level change is speeding up, therefore the erosion of our shores is speeding up. Not an immediate problem for the people in Iowa, but on Martha’s Vineyard it is a subject of growing concern.

What does it all mean, and even more to the point, what are we going to do about it? It is hard to picture change as slow as the change in sea level from year to year. If a rise of one foot a century changes to two or three feet per century, what does it mean to our coastal margins?  Squibnocket Beach is a barrier beach, slowly migrating landward with room behind it to absorb the changes for the foreseeable future, but what about Vineyard Haven harbor, Five Corners and all the low-lying businesses between there and the drawbridge? Does the push to change Vineyard Haven’s waterfront zoning to allow more construction, more investment, really make sense?

West Tisbury and Aquinnah have relatively little structural investment in the areas likely to be most impacted by the ocean in the near future, but Oak Bluffs is a different story. Oak Bluffs has already gone a long way down the path of armoring and re-armoring its shoreline. One of the things we have heard loud and clear in the discussion about Squibnocket is that armoring directly causes loss of beach. As sea level rises and the seawalls get higher and stronger, the possibility of successfully holding a sand beach gets smaller and more expensive.

If you find yourself in a hole, the first thing to do is stop digging. As an Island community we need to stop building and rebuilding roads and houses and businesses where they are going to come into conflict with the ocean. Over the past several years, we have put more than $50 million dollars into the three bridges, all on barrier beaches, that lead into Oak Bluffs, and not a dime into the Barnes Road/County Road access that is the only one that will be passable in a major storm. Taking out these bridges now makes no sense, but starting to plan for the time when they should come out makes all the sense in the world.

It should not come as a surprise when chunks of Beach Road or the road by Farm Pond or the area around Eastville Point get washed away. We will probably treat it not as inevitable but as an emergency, one that has to be fixed, because that is what we have always done. It was easy to vote to spend federal/state highway money on the bridges, but as our community has to bear more of the real costs, we should think long and hard about what we are doing.  Rebuilding the armoring around East Chop sounds good, but it will involve vast amounts of tax dollars to protect an unnecessary road and a few private homes. Those homes have enjoyed their place on the bluff for a long time, but the sea is rising and the erosion rate is increasing. Now is the time to plan, perhaps for a managed retreat, so we don’t end up with lovely old homes hanging over the cliff.

Then there is sand mining. Sounds like it might help, if you don’t stop and ask why we need to mine sand from the seabed to replenish the beaches. Clearly if the answer is we need to mine the sand to fix the beaches we are screwing up, then it is time to start some serious planning.  If such a fix were a one-time thing, then perhaps it might make sense, but that is not the case.  Fixing the beaches is an endless and endlessly expensive proposition. Planning now to move the roads, homes, and businesses inland as a healthy beach migrates landward will keep the costs down, and if we can bring ourselves to stop building and remove the groins and sea walls, we can have the beaches back, free and natural.

All of which brings us back around to the solutions for a road on the beach at Squibnocket.  The proposed solutions offer a politically acceptable way around today’s problems, and the process will help educate us all for the next time we have to deal with this and similar problems around the Vineyard.

Chris Murphy