Oak Bluffs selectmen weigh big-ticket infrastructure expenditures

Town will need to be flush with cash to address future wastewater needs.

Repairs to stabilize East Chop Bluff, to renourish eroding town beaches, and to expand a maxed-out wastewater treatment plant — all by 2020 — will cost the town roughly $53 million. Photo by Jamie Stringfellow

Costly fixes to bulging bluffs, eroding beaches, and waning wastewater capacity were presented to Oak Bluffs selectmen at their regular meeting on Tuesday night.

Selectmen were told that repairs to stabilize East Chop Bluff, to renourish eroding town beaches, and to expand a maxed-out wastewater treatment plant — all by 2020 — will cost the town roughly $53 million.

A $12 million plan to restore East Chop Bluff, and $14 million plans to renourish town beaches from North Bluff south to the Inkwell, were presented to selectmen by engineer Carlos Pena, from Marion-based CLE Engineering.

Mr. Pena, who also supervised the North Bluff seawall project, showed selectmen pictures taken that day of East Chop Bluff. “There has been an acceleration of deterioration since Jan. 17,” he said, referring to the date of the first nor’easter of 2017, which had since been followed by two more storms. “You can see the pavement jutting through the bank; we never saw that before. The bottom of the bank continues to deteriorate. The root mass has been holding it together. If it was just sand, it wouldn’t be there anymore.”

The East Chop Bluff project is currently in the permitting and funding phase. Mr. Pena said plans are to shore up East Chop Bluff, which includes design work, permitting, and construction on 2,500 feet of coastal bank, and also to include a removable set of stairs for improved beach access, and possibly a walkway that stretches the length of East Chop.

“Now is a good time to be soliciting funds from the state,” he said, noting there are meetings on the books with state agencies in March. “The question will be will be whether to fund the project as a whole or in sections.”

Chairman of the selectmen Gail Barmakian suggested that the permitting work for the entire project be done first, and the construction done in two phases. “It’s very unlikely we’ll find one grant for $12 million,” she said.

Mr. Pena said the pedestrian path along the top of the corniche might open doors for more state funding. “Providing summer recreation opens up funding,” he said.

Mr. Pena said if all the planets align, and permitting and design work are completed this summer and funding is locked in, construction could start this fall, but a 2018 start date was more likely. Construction would most likely take two years. “We want to get the planning and permitting locked in as soon as we can, so we can act right away when funding comes in,” he said. “We don’t want to start after the road is washed out. If we can get ahead of this, I think we might be in great shape.”

Currently, the town is waiting to hear about a $200,000 grant from the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR).

“The towns will have to step up with funding as well,” Oak Bluffs conservation commissioner Joan Hughes said.

Mr. Pena stated that the completion of the permitting for “Beach Nourishment II,” which will fortify town beaches from the North Bluff seawall to the Inkwell, is likewise a goal for 2017.

In addition to moving mountains of sand, “Beach Nourishment II” calls for new timber groins to be built, and existing groins and rock jetties to be buttressed, to keep ocean currents from taking the new sand to the south shore.

“When it’s completed, there will be 40 to 50 feet of new beach above mean high water at North Bluff Beach,” Mr. Pena said, to a round of applause.

Mark Drainville, an engineer from Hyannis-based engineering firm GHD, presented selectmen with a draft plan for the expansion of Oak Bluffs town wastewater capacity, a proposition that could cost in the range of $28 million by 2020.

Plant capacity, health and safety issues, age and condition of the plant, and regulatory hurdles were all addressed in the draft plan. Mr. Drainville said the working life of a wastewater treatment plant is about 20 years, which the Oak Bluffs plant will reach in three years. “This facility is operating close to capacity,” he said. “It will be hard to take on additional flow. There are a lot of issues at this facility.”

Mr. Drainville told selectmen the top priority should be a comprehensive wastewater management (CMP) plan. “This is a good time to do a CMP,” he said. “It’s recognized by the state as being able to evaluate all of your wastewater needs at once, in a cost-effective manner.” Mr. Drainville said a CMP can help the town qualify for no-interest and low-interest funding.

The last Oak Bluffs CMP was done in the late 1990s. Mr. Drainville said new environmental concerns, like sea-level rise, were not included in the last CMP. The nitrogen-loading issue was also not nearly as critical as it is today.

“A CMP takes about a year or two. Implementation could take a while,” he said. “The most crucial thing is to make this plan as soon as possible.”

A CMP will cost in the range of $350,000. The expenditure will be a warrant article at this year’s town meeting.

In other business, selectmen were faced with dual warrant articles for a plastic bag ban, which may duel it out on the floor at town meeting in April.

Two groups, the Vineyard Conservation Society (VCS) and an ad hoc group of Oak Bluffs business owners, had met several times to hash out a single warrant article in recent months, but had reached an impasse.

The VCS article, presented by Samantha Look, was the same article that was passed by every other Island town last year, and went into effect this Jan. 1 in those towns. It requires that no stores provide disposable plastic bags less than 4.0 millimeters thick, and if a store provides bags, they may only provide recyclable paper bags or reusable bags, e.g. bags with handles specifically manufactured for multiple reuse.

The article from the Oak Bluffs business owners group was presented by Reliable Market co-owner Jennifer Pacheco Freeman. Ms. Freeman told selectmen she was still drafting the article, and had found pertinent information just prior to the meeting. “The businesses would like to research more options than the VCS is proposing,” she said. “We want to look more at compostable and biodegradable. I just found out about a recycling component [for plastic bags] that is available to us through our warehouse. I can collect the plastic bags at my store location, put them on my trucks at my own expense, transport them back to my warehouse in New Hampshire, then they go to a recycling facility in Connecticut. The warehouse does this to receive carbon credits.”

Both bag-ban articles will be petition articles, which are not approved by selectmen but require signatures of at least 10 Oak Bluffs taxpayers.

The deadline for all warrant articles is this Friday at 5 pm.