Beach rake debate heats up in Oak Bluffs

A beach rake demonstration took place at Inkwell Beach in 2011 - photo courtesy of Richard Seelig

In Letters to the Editor and comments in advance of annual town meeting on Tuesday, Oak Bluffs seasonal and year-round residents have expressed concern about the state of the town’s beaches and sharp criticism of town officials for what some have termed neglect of an important town resource.

The issue is expected to be the focus of debate when voters are asked to take up article 32 on the warrant, a petition article with 239 signatures, to fund the purchase of a $40,000 beach rake, which would be used to clear the beaches of cobbles, shells, old seaweed, trash, and debris during the summer months.

The Oak Bluffs citizens’ beach committee (OBCBC) — an informal group of year-round and seasonal residents, organized two years ago by seasonal resident Richard Seelig in response to the substandard dredge spoils taken from the Lagoon channel and deposited at Inkwell and Pay beaches in February 2014 — is behind the push.

Although the sand had been tested and deemed acceptable by Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), it did not “bleach out” as predicted, and public outcry grew until the dredge spoils were removed that June.

Last summer, dredge spoils from Little Bridge were used to fortify Pay Beach and Inkwell Beach. Although it was a clear improvement from the previous year, OBCBC members still had issues with the rocky composition of the beach nourishment and its uneven distribution.

The OBCBC contends that a number of towns on the Cape and Nantucket use beach rakes and that Pay Beach and Inkwell Beach would benefit from doing the same, roughly twice a month during the summer, depending on conditions.

The beach committee is at loggerheads with the Oak Bluffs Conservation Commission (ConCom), the permitting authority that would need to sign off on the use of a beach rake on town beaches.

At the regular ConCom meeting on Tuesday afternoon, several town officials and members of the ConCom expressed concerns over the lack of an overall plan and questioned if raking town beaches would comply with state regulations.

“I think everyone in town wants good beaches, but there’s a lot that needs to be illuminated,” Terry Appenzellar, who acted as chairman in the absence of Joan Hughes, said. Ms. Appenzellar said the ConCom had not seen a detailed plan from the OBCBC. “There’s no plan, no budget, the town doesn’t own the tractor required to pull the beach rake, and there’s no clear plan for what to do with the debris when it’s collected.”

Ms. Appenzellar also questioned how the highway department could run the beach rake during the busiest time of year. “Having done a study on the highway department a few years ago, we know the highway department already has more work than the people to do it,” she said.

Speaking to The Times on Tuesday, highway department supervisor Richie Combra said that he has had preliminary discussions with Island contractors who have the tractor required to pull the surf rake, and that it would cost the town between $85 and $100 per hour.

At Tuesday’s meeting, financial and advisory committee (FinCom) member Maura McGroarty questioned the lack of detail presented by the OBCBC, and said it was an open-ended financial liability to the town. “What are the long-term unintended consequences?” she said. “What happens when you extrapolate labor and maintenance costs over time?”

Ms. McGroarty also questioned the economy of scale for the $40,000 purchase. “What amount of beach warrants the purchase of a beach rake?” she said. “I’ve only heard two beaches mentioned.”

Ms. Appenzellar noted that State Beach is maintained by the state and Eastville Beach is maintained by Dukes County.

Conservation agent Liz Durkee stated legal and environmental concerns. She said that the ConCom permitting process is guided by the Massachusetts Coastal Wetlands Protection Act, which clearly states that rocks cannot be removed from Cape and Island beaches.

Parks Commissioner Amy Billings recalled that when the beach rake was demonstrated at the Inkwell in 2011, a large number of rocks were collected. She said this could lead to town employees taking the time to put the rocks back on the beach.

Not clear-cut
Speaking to The Times on Tuesday, Greg Berman, coastal processes specialist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), said a number of factors need to be considered in evaluating the efficacy of a beach rake. “The Wetlands Protection Act says that whatever you do to a beach, it cannot have a negative impact,” he said. “That’s not always a clear-cut decision.” Mr. Berman said that cobbles, defined as rocks between 60 and 250 millimeters in circumference, and which are prevalent on Pay Beach and Inkwell Beach, serve to mitigate beach erosion. “Cobbles disperse the energy of crashing waves,” he said. “Waves can move sand a lot more easily without them, and the beach can erode faster.”

Mr. Berman said that although Provincetown uses beach rakes, those beaches are accreting, or gaining sand. “It gets more dangerous with an eroding beach,” he said.

Mr. Berman said that the town of Winthrop removed cobbles from town beaches for many years, and recently had to allocate $30 million for a beach nourishment program that includes replacing cobbles to fight beach erosion. “Even if you use beach rakes for wrack removal, like they do in Harwich, you could be doing damage, because of the microfauna that lives in the seaweed, which is a good source of nutrients for other animals. Removing wrack from an eroding beach can also further erode it.”

To accommodate the seasonal residents on the OBCBC, the ConCom will hold a public hearing about the beach rake on Friday at 2:30 pm, at town hall meeting room.

Making waves
Public concern over the condition of town beaches is not new. It was listed as a top priority in the 1998 Oak Bluffs master plan, and it was a concern frequently mentioned to the Oak Bluffs Downtown Streetscape Committee in its extensive outreach campaign in the summer of 2014.

“I think a lot of this effort is a reaction to the [Lagoon channel] dredge spoils,” Ms. Billings said. “Maybe it’s time to move on.”

In a letter to Mr. Seelig after a February meeting with the OBCBC, Stephen McKenna, Cape and Islands regional coordinator for Coastal Zone Management (CZM), wrote, “It seems to me that there has not been much discussion with the public about beach management, and what the public envisions for its beaches. There is really no ‘correct’ answer, other than trying to maximize the public enjoyment of these beaches while protecting them at the same time. Like you say, it is a question of balance, and that needs to be a public discussion.”