The case for the causeway


Chilmark should vote to amend its wetland zoning bylaw to allow an elevated causeway over a wetland from Squibnocket Road to the Squibnocket Farm subdivision. Rising sea level and increased storminess are threatening to cut off reliable access to the 14 homes in the subdivision, and the present grade-level causeway and stone revetment are causing the town beach to wash away.

In addition, the proposed elevated causeway would improve the state of the beach and wetland, expand public access to the ocean and pond, and provide the Squibnocket Farm Homeowners Association (SFHA) — who have pledged to pay for the project — with reliable access to their properties.

You might ask, Is building a causeway over a wetland really a good idea? Why, for example, have the town’s conservation commission and the state’s Office of Coastal Zone Management (OCZM) supported it? The OCZM has even promised $300,000 to defray the town’s expenses.

The association has been told by engineers that the rock-armored grade-level causeway that holds up the road to their homes will likely be torn apart by storms within 10 years.

The SFHA owns all the land in question, but has leased the parking lot and beach to the town. In light of the lease, the SFHA approached the town with a proposition in 2013 (Nov. 26, 2013, “Chilmark imagines new plan for Squibnocket beach parking”). The initial plan was to build an elevated steel and concrete causeway 15 feet high and 300 feet long. The SFHA would pay the entire cost of its construction. The conservation commission approved it, noting that this structure would replace the existing rock revetment that has failed to hold back the ocean, and which has caused Squibnocket Beach to erode. Coastal geology experts told the town and the SFHA that the elevated causeway would allow occasional storms to wash through to the pond, but also allow the barrier beach to rebuild itself.

However, the residents of Blacksmith Valley Road, which winds across the bluff overlooking Squibnocket Pond from the north, said they did not want a causeway to interfere with their view out to the ocean. At the April 2014 town meeting, conservation commission member Chris Murphy proposed an amendment to the warrant article for the planned causeway that recommended starting the whole process over again. That amendment passed by one vote (April 28, 2014, “Chilmark voters derail Squibnocket Beach plan, 83-81”).

The second round of planning included more public meetings and more experts than the first round. The result was a lower, wood-clad, elevated causeway that took a route that would require the town to purchase two parcels (Feb. 4, 2015, “Voters approve Squibnocket Beach plan, obstacles remain”).

The SFHA had originally offered a new lease to the town that would provide access to a much longer stretch of beach, a relocated parking lot, and skiff access to Squibnocket Pond. These were all preserved in the new plan, albeit in altered form. The cost of the new lease for the beach was more than halved, from $440,000 to $200,000, which would be paid from Community Preservation Act funds. This plan was passed with a near unanimous vote at a special town meeting in February 2015.

A group of residents called the Chilmark Citizens Group still opposes the more low-key causeway, and points out that the town’s zoning bylaws do not allow construction within 100 feet of a wetland (August 10, “Abutters group appeals Squibnocket Project approval”). That is where the town finds itself now. The proposed bylaw amendment allows for “roadways, including the addition of elevated sections or causeways, providing a substantial public benefit as determined by the Board of Selectmen and Conservation Commission’s review …”

In order to preserve the plan they passed in February 2015, the Chilmark town meeting on April 24 should vote in favor of the improved version of the proposed amendment. The removal of the stone revetment and construction of the elevated causeway will do environmental good — rebuilding of the barrier beach; do public good — continue public access to the beach and pond — and allow a group of Chilmark residents reliable access to their homes, for which they are willing to pay $4 million. Despite some reasonable objections, the causeway is the right solution. It’s been exhaustively poked and prodded, and it’s a good deal for the entire town.