South Beach restoration stops for summer

Beachgoers will find a very different beach than in the past.


Visitors to one of the Island’s most popular beaches this summer will find that South Beach has drastically changed, despite Edgartown’s efforts to restore the large dunes, pathways, and roads heavily damaged by storms last winter.

Restoration work has now halted for the summer, leaving gentle mounds of freshly planted dune grass in neat rows, instead of the massive dunes that long flanked the beach. Several buildings, including one a century old, are gone, although new fencing and signs are up.

In spots along the beach, a waist-high shelf of sediment, roots, and debris is still visible where newly dredged sand failed to stay put. 

“It will probably never look like it did last summer,” James Hagerty, Edgartown town administrator, told The Times. “We tried to get the beach to be the most habitable option for recreation.”

Besides superficial maintenance and upkeep for South Beach, what beachgoers see now is what they’ll get this summer.

“It changes every year, because of climate change,” said Debbie Larsen of Edgartown as she walked her dog over the redefined Right Fork entrance. “But it’s always beautiful.”

More dredging “could possibly happen in the late fall … dependent upon the dredge committee and hurricane season,” Hagerty said.

Town agencies, including the parks commission, dredge committee, conservation committee, and highway department, have worked since the first nor’easter hit in December to restore the beach, but much has changed, including redefined beach access points.

The wide, sandy path on the east side of the beach, at the Left Fork’s intersection with Katama Road and Atlantic Drive, is closed and cut off by dune restoration. The wooden bathhouse that stood there is gone. 

The new path is about 30 feet right of the original entrance, and slants steeply up and then down along the new dune’s shape.

At the Right Fork, or the west side of the beach, the entrance is also steeper than before. It curves left over the dune, rather than perpendicular to the ocean. 

Part of the parking lot at the Right Fork is reserved for trailers that serve as a temporary base for the parks department and lifeguard crew. Their previous structures were destroyed, Hagerty said.

The nearby Donnelly Camp, the lifeguard shack and post for South Beach staff, was torn down at the end of March because of storm damage. The building was erected in the 1920s, and had survived a century of storms before last winter.

The large dunes that used to shield the ocean from view as visitors drove up Katama Road or Herring Creek Road were flattened by the storm’s surging swells. In the past few months, the parks commission installed new dunes, though of a smaller scale, with sand from the town-owned dredge.

Dune grass, used to anchor and stabilize the dunes, was planted in neat rows behind snow fencing and signs that read, “Dune Restoration Area, Do Not Enter” and “These Dunes Aren’t Made for Walking.”

The worst storms hit on Dec. 18 and Jan. 9. 

When pounding waves breached the dunes, they flooded Atlantic Road, which runs parallel to the beach. The Right Fork culvert, which carries water under the road, failed, and caused a partial collapse of the road. Atlantic Drive was closed until mid-April.

David Stetson, who visits his brother in Oak Bluffs for a few days every year, was fishing on the beach Tuesday. He called the reconstruction “a good thing,” and said the altered landscape doesn’t “change a thing” for him. 

Norton Point Beach, near the Left Fork, is always changing, but is much the same as last year, said Hagerty. 

Permits for over-sand vehicles are available, and access will only fluctuate based on bird activity. Norton Point is home to several shorebirds protected by the state, including the piping plover and American oystercatcher.

Other beaches across the Island were also damaged, but none required a restoration as large as South Beach.

Martina Mastromonaco, Chilmark beach committee superintendent, said that beaches up-Island are different from past years. “People need to think that what it was is our memories, and what it is is our future,” she said.

Mastromonaco and other up-Island officials didn’t have the same problems as Edgartown officials, who were forced to rebuild, bring in sand, and plant new grass.

Lucy Vincent Beach lost a couple of hundred feet from the main path, and some of the cliff came down. A path along the cliff had to be completely rebuilt. 

But the beach came back.

“It’s coming back on its own. We let nature take its course,” Mastromonaco said.

Still, last winter’s storms caused the most damage she’s seen in the 30 years she’s worked for the town.

Jeffrey Madison, the Aquinnah town administrator, said that Moshup Beach also restored itself naturally, as surf and tides brought most of the displaced sand back onto the beach.

“Ready or not, summer is coming,” said Madison. “Not much we can do when storms take sand away.”

“It isn’t as sandy as some other years, but it seems to have replenished itself enough so there’s sufficient beach,” he said. He added that stones were put down to keep that section of the Vineyard from washing away.

Madison doesn’t think beachgoers will be affected.

There is still a lot of work to be done for the West Basin Harbor, said Madison. At the head of Menemsha Pond, where Lobsterville Road dead-ends, parts of the stone revetment, an erosion control method, took a beating and were washed away. 

The plan now is to remove sediment from the entrance to the harbor. At Tuesday night’s Aquinnah annual town meeting, voters approved $50,000 from the town waterways fund to dredge the West Basin Harbor entrance.

By the end of this week, Hagerty will submit hundreds of pages of documentation about the restoration to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for reimbursement of efforts made so far. 

Edgartown, at the request of the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency, declared an emergency at South Beach in January, to be eligible for emergency assistance funds. Hagerty said the agency has not yet made a determination whether the town will get those funds.

Although he lamented a comparison to Amity Island’s mayor, Larry Vaughn, from Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws,” Hagerty declared, “South Beach will be open for business.”


  1. Thankfully, the various Edgartown departments were on top of rebuilding South Beach as the majority of the island visitors need a beach to go to. UnLike those Up Island beaches which are closed to the public. It is shameful that all the beaches are not open for everyone.

  2. “At the head of Menemsha Pond, where Lobsterville Road dead-ends, ”

    I thought the West Basin was at the mouth of the pond.

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