Abutters group appeals Squibnocket Project approval

The residents have asked the Department of Environmental Protection to overrule approval by the Chilmark conservation commission.

The time consuming and challenging road to reach agreement on a plan to preserve Squibnocket Beach and provide access to a private subdivision has taken a sharp turn. In a notice filed June 13 and made public last week by the Chilmark selectmen, a group of Chilmark residents asked the state Department of Environmental Protection to overrule the Chilmark conservation commission and issue a superseding order of conditions.

At issue is an 11-foot elevated causeway that would be constructed at a cost of millions of dollars to provide access to the Squibnocket Farm subdivision. Construction was expected to begin this fall.

The Squibnocket plan has encompassed three years of discussion, planning, meetings, and votes leading to a plan to restore Squibnocket Beach to its natural state, move the existing town beach parking lot, and construct an elevated access road over a wetland.

Property abutters primarily objected to the height of the proposed causeway and guardrail, which is designed to replace the often storm-damaged gravel road that provides the only access to the 14 homes in the Squibnocket Farm subdivision to the west of the town beach.

The causeway, a 300-foot-long and 12-foot-wide, single-lane road similar in style to the Menemsha dock causeway, is elevated as much as 13 feet above the marshy ground at the edge of Squibnocket Pond. The estimated $4 million project was designed and will be paid for by the Squibnocket Homeowners Association.

A separate but related project includes the removal of the stone revetment behind the existing and eroding town beach that proponents said will allow it to return to a more natural state. In conjunction, a new, larger town parking lot would be created on higher ground along the access road that now leads to the existing lot, under the terms of a new 99-year lease.

The petition to the DEP is signed by 20 residents identified as “Chilmark Citizens Group.” It is unclear whether the appeal will affect a state grant to help fund the project.

In their five-page letter, the Chilmark Citizens Group notes that “the zoning bylaws governing the Squibnocket Pond Overlay District are among the strictest on Martha’s Vineyard.” The petition argues that the documentation is not complete and further that “The possibility of a non-causeway alternative is simply dismissed out of hand.”

The Squibnocket Farm Homeowners Association has filed for dismissal of the petition.

Reached by telephone this week, selectman James Malkin, former chairman of the Squibnocket committee, and the man whose diplomatic skills helped craft an agreement, told The Times that the project slated for Squibnocket Beach is important for three main reasons.

Mr. Malkin said due to coastal erosion, the town needs better beach parking because the current lot is “falling apart.” He said it was also important to improve beach access — that the beach is submerged and inaccessible at high tide. Lastly, he noted that “regular, emergency and utility” passage to Squibnocket Farm is in jeopardy due to erosion and that the current access road is particularly susceptible to Nor’easters.

Beach Report

A report by Chilmark beach department assistant superintendent Karyn Robertson at last week’s selectmen’s meeting highlighted the changes occurring at Squibnocket Beach. Ms. Robertson said: “Squibnocket Beach has been inaccessible when it’s high tide.” She said the tide rises against the rock wall, and that the staircase is “unusable” at certain stages of the tide.  

“We actually had somebody try to use the staircase when the tide was high; it didn’t really work out so well for them.” She added, “people are really not able to access the beach unless they crawl down the rocks, which I really don’t think is too safe.”

Ms. Robertson also said at low tide there’s only about 10 to 15 feet of beach in front of the parking lot, and that the conditions overall have led to a big drop in beachgoers.

“The most swimmers we’ve had in the swim area at one time has been about three,” she said. She told the selectmen that because of this, the department has assigned lifeguards to more popular swim areas that include Menemsha Beach.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that beach department assistant superintendent Karyn Robertson told selectmen that the staircase is unusable. Ms. Robertson had declined to clarify the matter via telephone at the time of publication. In a comment below she said it was only unusable at certain stages of the high tide.