Tide is turning on Oak Bluffs beaches

A driver puts a model of the new Oak Bluffs beach rake though its paces on Pay Beach. — Sam Moore

The new railings along Seaview Avenue were shining in the sun Wednesday. The new three-tiered staircase at Samoset Avenue made for easy access to Pay Beach.

And on the first summerlike day of 2016, Oak Bluffs town officials, members of the citizens’ beach committee, and interested citizen bathers gathered at Pay Beach to see a demonstration of the new $40,000 beach rake voters overwhelmingly approved at annual town meeting in April.

The anticipation was high as Thomas Chapman, from Connecticut-based Barber and Sons, pulled the rake with a four-wheeled tractor, first skimming the sand, then raking it at a depth of two inches. Rocks up to the size of a softball clanged loudly into the hopper as he passed.

Barefoot beachgoers immediately walked on the corrugated sand and to a person, voiced their approval.

“It was much, much better, especially after he went down to two inches,” Kathy Laskowski of Oak Bluffs said.

“It’s a no-brainer,” Dr. Jason Lew said approvingly. “Why wouldn’t we want to make our town beaches the best we can?”

Chairman of the selectmen Gail Barmakian was also pleased with the results. “We got a lot of complaints last year; people said they couldn’t lay on the beach because it hurt. This will make a huge difference.”

“I think it’s symbolic,” planning board member Ewell Hopkins said. “This, and the railing and the stairs, are the result of the people speaking and the town taking action. We’re a beach town, this is what we’re supposed to be doing.”

Mr. Chapman said he will come back to the Island to train whomever highway superintendent Richie Combra assigns the job.

The town does not own a four-wheeled tractor, so Mr. Combra has spoken to several potential subcontractors. The cost will be in the neighborhood of $125 an hour.

Mr. Chapman estimated that it would take about three hours to rake from the new staircase south to the Inkwell jetty. “It’s also going to depend on how many passes he has to make,” he said. “It’ll probably be more in the beginning.”

Final hurdle remains

A conservation commission permit has yet to be issued for the beach rake, and there’s no guarantee one will be. Conservation agent Liz Durkee has been attempting a delicate balancing act between beach rake advocates and the Massachusetts Wetlands Protection Act, which does not allow any activity on a beach that can cause erosion. Removing rocks, shells, and seaweed from a beach can potentially hasten erosion. This is even more critical on a beach that will bear the brunt of the nor’easters that are sure to come.

To resolve the issue, Ms. Durkee has enlisted consultant Stan Humphries, frp, Plymouth-Based LEC Environmental Consultants, to make a determination.

“Hopefully, this will make everyone comfortable with the decision,” Ms. Durkee told The Times. Mr. Humphries is qualified as an expert witness in several District and Superior Courts, Massachusetts Land Court, and by the Massachusetts DEP.

“Biological impacts of beach raking can be dicey, especially when you’re removing rocks,” he told The Times on Monday. “The town of Hull was assessed a large fine by the DEP for removing cobbles from their beaches.”

Mr. Humphries will visit Oak Bluffs on June 6. ConCom will make a final permitting decision after a public hearing on Tuesday, June 28. Ms. Durkee said she hopes the level of interest in the beaches will lead to an overall beach management plan for the town.

Years in the raking

The campaign for the beach rake sprang out of public outcry over substandard beach nourishment that was dredged from under the Lagoon Bridge and placed on Inkwell and Pay Beaches in 2014. 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, beach committee members still had issues with the rocky composition of the beach nourishment and its uneven distribution.

Richard Seelig, de facto chairman of the beach committee, began a petition to put the beach rake on this year’s town meeting warrant.

At that meeting, Dr. Lew pointed out that only $1,000 of the town’s $28.4 million budget had been allotted to maintain the town beaches. Nantucket and a number of towns on the Cape use beach rakes.