Oak Bluffs beaches: Finding the sweet spot

Inkwell and Pay beaches look good, but more needs to be done, beach advocate says.

Shown here is the town's beach rake being used in 2016 to smooth out Inkwell beach.

Updated June 5

Saturday afternoon on Pay and Inkwell beaches was like a summer postcard of life on the Island. Bright sun, high 70s, gentle breeze, and eight Polar Bears chanting and dancing in the water, jump-starting their daily Oak Bluffs summer ritual.

Richie Combra’s highway department had coiffed the small amount of dark sand left from a disputed 2014 dredge material renourishment around recently installed stairs and beach access ramps, smoothed out the dropoffs, and raked the beach to a depth of three inches.

At the shoreline, Richard Seelig, fresh from a dip, was more content than he normally has been in the 10 years he’s been scrapping for more user-friendly beach maintenance. “Yes, we have made some progress. There’s more to do, certainly, but the beaches look pretty good right now,” he said.

Seelig is the articulate founder and spokesman of the Oak Bluffs Beach Association, a 70-member group he founded in 2014 to hound the Oak Bluffs conservation commission to beautify the town’s two principal beaches. He seems a man with a mission rather than a jihad.

Seelig has successfully lobbied for removal of much but not all of the offending dredge material placed in 2014, and for the acquisition of a $40,000 beach rake and a tractor to pull it. The results of a recent raking were evident on Saturday, with a nearly plush sand cover leading to a necklace of small stones at the high tide mark.

Combra is permitted by the town’s conservation commission to rake the town’s two most popular beaches once a month, at a depth of three inches, no closer than 10 feet from the waterline.

Beach raking is an environmentally tricky subject, involving decisions about whether to rake, and if so, the frequency, range, and depth. And it puts the comfort of the financially important summer trade in conflict with ecological and environmental needs

There are two predominant schools of beach-raking thought. One, espoused in a primer by a research arm of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI), holds that raking is a last-resort strategy and a cause of beach erosion. The state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has a less draconian view of the practice, though DEP closely monitors raking practices and beach conditions before permitting it.

The conservation commission favors the WHOI view, but allows raking once a month and describes the policy as a compromise between the beach association demands and environmental beachcare best practices. Seelig’s group favors the DEP model, and says Cape towns rake more frequently, and down to the waterline. No other Island towns own a beach rake, and none has asked to borrow Oak Bluffs’ rake, Combra said.

In addition to more frequent raking, Seelig said the conservation commission should not be overseeing work on the beaches. “Most Cape towns use parks and rec departments or have a town beach committee to oversee the work. To be fair, conservation committees are basically permitting agencies without particular expertise in operating practices,” he said in a conversation with The Times.

Seelig lobbied the Oak Bluffs Association of local business owners for support in a recent letter. In it, Seelig told the business group, “Our beaches are more than ecological resources; they are significant human resources that have been important recreationally, socially, and historically in the lives of people who live here and who grew up here. And lest we forget, our local economy depends on our attractiveness to visitors, many of whom choose to stay and shop in Oak Bluffs because of our beaches.

“We are frustrated that a small group of appointed people have nearly total control over the beaches that belong to all of us and have such a narrow view of what can be done on them. We are reaching out to the business community to ask for its support in preserving our wonderful heritage,” he wrote.

Dennis daRosa, one of two business association officials to whom the letter was sent, confirmed receipt and said, “I don’t have the expertise to comment [on beach ecology], but I will say it seems to me the town is doing some good things with regard to the beaches.”

The better beach campaign caught fire, and demand for a beach rake sprang from public outcry over substandard beach nourishment that was dredged 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.

In 2015, 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.”

Seelig said deterioration of town beaches began six years before public attention focused on the issue. “I became aware of the change [in beach quality] in 2008,” the seasonal resident said. “Before that, the beaches were fine. Oak Bluffs has done four beach replenishments, and each of them has degraded the beach,” he said. “What is the level of satisfaction with beach conditions I want to see? Just as they were in 2007, when I bought a house on on Penacook Avenue and went every morning to the beach for yoga and to swim, becoming friends with the Polar Bears.”

For its part, the conservation commission argues that it has been accommodating to beach user demand, including removal of most of the 2014 dredge fill put on the beaches and limited raking. Conservation agent Liz Durkee said the commission has approved limited use of the rake, but did not support purchase of the $40,000 beach rake at 2016 annual town meeting.

This week Combra offered an assessment of beach maintenance and expectations: “We have the equipment. We are under direction from the ConCom, which has determined they will allow raking once a month. I think the beach got dredge material [in 2014] that was not terrific material, which has been removed and topped. The dredge material may be questioned, but without it we probably wouldn’t have a beach. I think the beaches are in decent shape now. Compare them with State Beach, which is covered with golf ball–sized rocks. We don’t have that,” he said. “I think that raking over time will help. And not to belittle comments and concerns of the beach committee, but [the conditions] they are looking for do exist in Florida, say, but just don’t exist on New England beaches.”

Updated to correct the conservation commission’s position on the beach rake. – Ed.