Mar. 26—Gordon Peabody likes to say that his company, Safe Harbor, uses the power of the wind and waves to rebuild natural shoreline protections like beaches and dunes.
One technique involves placing thousands of slats in random patterns on a beach mimicking stalks of beach grass. In theory, they slow down wave velocity causing the sand it carries to settle out and bulk up a beach instead of destroying it.
If there's one trend Peabody has noticed in over 30 years of work, it's the raw power he thinks climate change has injected into storms. It's what he saw at Ballston Beach in Truro in 2013. A megastorm, one of several big powerful winter storms that have besieged the Cape in recent years, developed off the coast as arctic air collided with a warm southern air mass. The storm spun hammered the coastline with hurricane-force winds, breaching an offshore sandbar and overrunning a coastal dune.
That breach led to the loss of about one-third of the Ballston Beach parking lot and imperiled adjacent homes by severely eroding the coastal bank underneath them.
"That's an example of climate change. Bigger storms, with a storm surge loading up inside a sandbar causing a blowout and a big rip channel," Peabody said.
After a big storm like that, people such as Eastham Natural Resources Director Shana Brogan see homeowners coming to them demanding the protection only stone can give. About one-quarter of Eastham's shoreline is now armored with fortress-like stone walls known as revetments. But while these walls do the job of protecting property, they wreak havoc with the natural defenses of beaches and sandbars that rely on sand supplied by eroding dunes and coastal banks.
"There's significant pressure when someone comes in (to a conservation commission meeting) and they want a revetment (a stone wall)," said Greg Berman, a coastal processes specialist with the Cape Cod Extension Service and Woods Hole Sea Grant.
But property owners face a crazy quilt of regulations intended to protect that sand supply that determines whether they even qualify to build a stone wall. Whether you get the ultimate protection depends on when the home was built, what type of land it was built on and where your property is located. Within a single town, the law can differ from prohibition to permissible depending on location.
"Our shoreline was never stable," said John Englander, founder of The Rising Seas Institute, whose latest book "Moving to Higher Ground" equates the heat energy we are pumping into our atmosphere to detonating a half-million atomic bombs a day.
That heat is melting the world's two great ice sheets on Greenland and Antarctica and sea rise of at least 2 feet is inevitable, Englander said.
"We have to recognize that where we think the beach is, is a very temporary line," he said. "We have seen changes in the past 30 years, but we haven't seen nothing yet."
Erosion, he said, is naturally advancing the shoreline toward homes and neighborhoods. Sea rise just speeds up the process.
"We found that, after more than 30 years of experience, that a storm event ... takes a third of a cubic yard of sand per linear foot of shoreline," Peabody said.
The sand gets transported offshore to feed a river of sand traveling along the coast that builds up nearshore sandbars and beaches on downdrift properties.
A stone wall doesn't just keep the sand behind it from moving, it also keeps waves from snatching sand from the toe of a coastal bank causing the face to collapse like a calving iceberg, advancing the cliff edge towards a home.
But revetments are a double-edged sword. They protect property, but at the expense of the greater protections natural systems provide. By interrupting the supply of sand from coastal banks and dunes, they put undefended properties at greater risk, and even jeopardize the beaches that drive our tourist economy. Wave energy bouncing off stone walls scours out the high tide beach and can increase erosion on adjacent undefended properties.
The loss of beach habitat doesn't just affect sunbathers. A 2008 study in Marine Ecology found that armored beaches caused a dramatic decline in species abundance and diversity from worms to birds.
It's our own behavior that put our property in harm's way. Until the post-war building boom of the 1950s, many waterfront property owners built small homes on seaside lots so that they could easily be moved back or abandoned when erosion inevitably threatened.
Englander said our love of an ocean view and the misconception that erosion rates would remain stable resulted in building bigger and bigger homes on marginal seaside lots. As erosion rates increased in recent years, property owners want the security of a stone wall to defend what are now multimillion-dollar properties.
To homeowners, the disparity in what they are allowed to do to protect their homes can be stark. Property owners along Sandwich's largely undefended Cape Cod Bay barrier beach dread each winter storm while just across the bay, stone walls proliferate with more each year.
Yet, even along the Outer Cape, where towns generally allow stone walls to be built along Cape Cod Bay, there's a disparity. Just a few minutes' drive across the peninsula to the Atlantic Ocean, stone walls are banned by the National Park Service.
"We have a pretty firm and clear policy of preserving the natural processes in a dynamic coastal environment," Cape Cod National Seashore Superintendent Brian Carlstrom said.
Translation: No rock walls to protect property along the length of the Atlantic side of the Cape.
For some of the homes on Ballston Beach in Truro, and all along what is known as the Outer Beach, the future is short and there is no appeal. Sea levels in the Gulf of Maine have risen by a foot over the past 100 years as measured by the Boston tide gauge. That combined with some furious nor'easters in recent winters resulted in repeated overwashes at Ballston that swept away large portions of the coastal bank.
A March 2018 storm surge ate 38 feet off the bluff, leaving the Musnuff home dangling. It had been in their extended family since 1895, but there was no stone wall coming to their rescue and the house was demolished that same year. Now their neighbor's house, which was already moved back a few years ago, hangs over the edge.
Michael Pottey knows how those Truro homeowners feel. After last winter's storms some in the Springhill Beach neighborhood in Sandwich, which he has called home since 1995, sold their homes. Pottey is a semiretired chemical engineer and consultant. He said his neighbors just couldn't take the uncertainty and dread that came with every storm.
Because these Sandwich homes were built on a barrier beach, state and federal law prohibits any coastal engineered structures, such as rock walls. Formed from eroded sand, barrier beaches are more like sand castles than walls. They absorb much of the impact from ocean storm waves but are built to roll with the punches; breaking up under the assault to retreat and reform closer to shore.
Stone walls starve these beaches of the sand they need to move and rebuild. Recently, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers agreed that the massive erosion on the Sandwich barrier beach was likely caused in part by jetties they built to keep migrating sand from clogging the eastern end of the Cape Cod Canal.
"You don't want to stop that movement. Nature is going to win," said Shannon Hulst deputy director and floodplain specialist for the Cape Cod Cooperative Extension Service and Woods Hole Sea Grant.
Congress was so concerned about the impact of placing homes and other structures on these transient, but vital sand formations, that it passed the Coastal Barrier Resources Act in 1982 prohibiting the use of federal funds or other financial assistance such as mortgages or flood insurance.
"In the old days, the '20s, '30s, '40s, people didn't build big expensive houses on the oceanfront because you knew there was going to be erosion," Pottey said. The original homes in the Springhill area were just shacks thrown up from recycled wood, he said.
Despite the risk, homes get rebuilt and expanded by those who are wealthy enough to pay cash because they can't get federally backed mortgages or federal flood insurance.
"Everybody wants big now," Pottey said, including him.
He and his wife bought a small home on the beach in 1998 that they built into a much larger home now assessed at nearly $1 million with an estimated market value online at Zillow of over $1.2 million.
When he built this house, Pottey said he had 70 feet to the beach and a 10-foot high dune protecting him.
"That's all gone now," he said.
Hulst is working with Barnstable County Commissioner Mark Forest and State Rep. Steve Xiahoros on a plan to use existing federal floodplain buyout programs to take risky properties off the market. A public informational meeting on the proposal is in the works, she said. But it is far more likely that those programs would opt for less expensive inland properties in the floodplain and not waterfront, she said.
While Englander thinks that the repeated risk to homes in one area will cause home prices to drop enough that property owners might sell off their properties to the government at reasonable prices, that has not been the Cape experience.
Even in the Springhill Beach area, home values remain high. The house next door to Pottey's home cracked in two after the dune underneath it washed out in a recent storm. The front half collapsed on the beach. Even so, it was listed on Zillow last week at $800,000, a price reduction of only $100,000.
With no stone solution, Springhill Beach residents pay to dump sand in front of their homes, raise them up on pilings and occasionally try other temporary stopgap measures such as biodegradable sand-filled coconut fiber envelopes that blunt the force of the waves on the fragile sand dunes.
"I'm clearly worried. I think anybody near the coast should be worried," said Pottey, who is actively courting town officials to support the use of a sand-filled synthetic textile bag from Australia that claims to last 20 years. Because these bags essentially acts like a stone wall, they are hard to get permitted, especially on a barrier beach.
Even when you are entitled to that stone barrier, it is a long and expensive road to get there. The state wetlands protection act that grandfathered stone walls for pre-1978 structures still requires that they be permitted only as a last resort.
Berman said property owners must exhaust every viable alternative before conservation commissions allow a revetment because they know stone is permanent and permanently restricts the flow of sand to build protective sandbars and barrier beaches.
Local conservation commissions determine the steps in between. These can include various types of fencing to trap migrating sand, beach plantings and native vegetation planted on the face of the dune or bank, or soft solution technologies such as sand-filled biodegradable coconut fiber envelopes.
Seth Wilkinson is a "soft solutions" expert. It's in the title of his company, "Wilkinson Ecological Design."
Like Peabody's Safe Harbor, the Orleans-based company is one in an expanding number of coastal firms that help waterfront homeowners navigate the regulatory maze they encounter when trying to protect their property from erosion accelerated by climate change.
Wilkinson works with people who need help now, but can't get the stone wall they want due to local, state or federal regulations. Plantings, biodegradable fiber envelopes, and salt marsh restoration all strive to retain sand and reduce wave energy in the face of the increased rate of erosion.
"I see all levels of concern and I would say, for 75% of the folks I speak to, it's warranted," Wilkinson said. He has seen the evidence of sea rise, which increases the reach and impact of storms that are in turn getting stronger as the climate continues to warm.
"I've been doing this for 22 years and in some of my older projects I can see that tides have changed."
For new or rebuilt stone walls and other structures such as coconut fiber logs, commissions can require that property owners import sand and cover the wall each year with the same amount that would have naturally been lost to erosion. Wilkinson said these soft solutions are about as expensive as a rock wall and are only temporary.
A stone wall can cost $1,500 a linear foot, or $300,000 for a 200-foot long wall, depending on its height, said Wilkinson. Soft solutions, he said, cost about the same. Ironically, one of the escalating costs is the price of sand.
Mark and Barbara Blasch, owners of the so-called Blasch House in Wellfleet, have been in court or in front of town, state and federal agencies since 2008 when they submitted plans to demolish a 1,812 square-foot modernist home and replace it with a 5,848 square-foot home that many said spoiled the pristine landscape of the National Seashore Park.
At the time, locals also warned that it was too close to the edge of an eroding coastal bank, and was too big to retreat on what is a narrow lot. That all proved to be true.
Chequessett Neck Road runs past the home and terminates abruptly at the cliff edge in scattered chunks of asphalt dotting the face of the coastal bank. Halfway down, a concrete leaching pit from an abandoned septic system seems poised for the inevitable fall, and two spindly lead pipes, the remnants of wells eclipsed by shoreline retreat, jut up from the beach sand only to be bent back by wind and wave into 25-foot high arches.
When it was constructed in 2010, the Blasch House was only about 90 feet from the edge of the bluff. Over the next 10 years, that distance shrank to just a few feet and in 2018 the Florida-based trust which now owns the home requested a 241-foot-long stone wall to protect the property. That ignited a new round of protests from locals and Seashore officials concerned about the erosion impacts to adjacent properties and to a barrier beach on park property that protects the town's harbor.
The conservation commission has repeatedly denied that request. Instead, they required plantings to stabilize the bank. When that failed, a subsequent proposal to construct a hybrid rock wall topped by coconut fiber rolls was denied. Consultants hired by the trust said moving the house would only destroy the integrity of the coastal bank and provide only another 20 years of use under current erosion rates.
While the state Department of Environmental Protection approved the stone wall on appeal, that permit is in limbo awaiting a Barnstable Superior Court decision on whether the house qualifies as a pre-1978 structure. For now, the bank has been stabilized by three rows of coconut fiber logs, 10 feet high and 241 feet long, granted under an emergency order.
"This is a stopgap to get them through a period of time to seek and receive the structure they want to build," said Wellfleet Conservation Agent Hillary Greenberg-Lemos of the emergency protections for the Blasch House. She knows that the revetment will have negative effects, but there is no real alternative once other options have been exhausted.
"I'm hoping that something new will come along that will help property owners and the environment. What that is, I don't know," Greenberg-Lemos said.
In the wake of the Blasch House experience, Wellfleet passed a bylaw that limits the size of homes in the Cape Cod National Seashore.
Given the trend of larger homes in high-risk areas, Berman is working with the Cape Cod Commission project and towns on model regulations and bylaws using erosion rate setbacks to limit the square footage of a home.
The hard choices confronting waterfront property owners and regulators in the face of climate change impacts attracted national attention in the wake of Superstorm Sandy, which devastated beach communities and cities along the Atlantic coast in 2012. Various federal agencies are working on ways to give homeowners more choices than stone walls.
In 2013, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development launched Rebuild By Design, a design competition seeking solutions that mimicked natural protections. The designs included New York's Living Breakwaters Project to protect Staten Island. The solutions also included building artificial nearshore reefs to break up wave energy, restoring oyster reefs, rebuilding natural seagrass and marsh habitats, and a massive beach restoration depositing sand that rebuilt the shoreline to 1970 levels.
Some of these solutions, such as rebuilding oyster reefs, are underway while others await funding.
Wilkinson adapted a salt marsh restoration technique — which costs about as much as stone walls — now commonly in practice in the Chesapeake Bay area. Salt marshes buffer shorelines from storm impacts by absorbing wave energy and collecting sediment that in turn raises the height of the marsh further increasing its protective capability.
The Chesapeake model created a manmade marsh behind a low-profile stone wall or berm, but Wilkinson has had to alter that to get state permission for use on post-1978 properties that don't qualify for revetments.
The 2007 break in the barrier beach protecting Chatham's harbor increased erosion rates along Shore Road. While their neighbors were allowed to build revetments, the McGonigle family was denied in 2014 because their lot was not developed before the 1978 state deadline.
"I called up Jim Mahala, the regional section chief at DEP, and I said what do you want to do here?" Wilkinson said. Soft solutions like fiber rolls were not working. There was just too much wave energy, he said.
"He said we do need to give these post-78 homes more options," Wilkinson said. He proposed building a marsh to protect the toe of the bluff, but Mahala wouldn't agree to a low rock sill like those in the Chesapeake. It was just too much like a revetment.
Wilkinson discovered a layer of peat beneath the sand at the toe of bluff. These peat beds are the remnants of old marshes that have been submerged as the Cape's shoreline retreated. Their dense root systems still hold fast to the organic matter they once trapped as the tides washed over them.
The Chatham peat bed was mixed in with cobble and Wilkinson and Mahala settled on a strategy that mimicked that template. Instead of the low revetment popular in the Chesapeake, Wilkinson mixed rocks in with a layer of organic matter topped with native plants intended to develop a root system that will hold the soil and create a peat layer. Fiber rolls protect the bottom 9 feet of the eroding coastal bank, which is thickly planted with grasses.
While it may not look like a marsh, it is intended to function like one.
"Our goal is to facilitate the growth of peat," said Wilkinson.
The new technique was approved by the conservation commission as well as a similar installation on Crows Pond, then in Falmouth and in the Gray Gables area of Bourne. These marsh restorations now make up half of what his firm does, and he doesn't see demand slowing.
"Time will tell," Wilkinson said. "I consider something experimental for the first 10 years."
Follow Doug Fraser on Twitter:@dougfrasercct
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