After significant erosion from successive winter storms left Tom Nevers beach littered with debris from the former Navy base, the Nantucket Conservation Commission has voted unanimously to issue an enforcement order against the town requiring it to clean up the mess.
While acknowledging that the town is already working toward that goal and stating that the enforcement order is not meant to be punitive, the members of the Conservation Commission believe the order will give town departments better options and the authority to get the work done as soon as possible.
In the aftermath of three storms in the span of 10 days earlier this month, the erosion they caused has exposed more of the abandoned Navy base - a relic of the Cold War that operated from 1957 to 1976 - including a large sewage tank, huge chunks of concrete, wires, pipes, and other debris.
“I do think we need to put an enforcement order in place to allow what can be done in-house to start as soon as possible,” said Conservation Commission vice chair Seth Engelbourg.
The erosion was so severe, however, that the town is still evaluating how to simply access the beach given the steep drop-off created by the storms.
Vincent Murphy, the town’s sustainability programs manager, joined the meeting to brief the commission on the town’s effort to not only clean up the debris, remediate what remains of the base, and stabilize the coastal bank to the extent possible.
The property and that project are under the control of the town’s Parks and Recreation Department, Murphy said, but he has been involved through his role as sustainability programs manager. The project began three years ago and the town is contracting with the company Weston & Sampson to survey and draft a plan.
“The idea of the project, and you’re going to see a notice of intent on this at some point, is to dig back the face of the bank a distance, take out all the material, put in clean fill, redo the bank face, and then have appropriate frontage that can behave more naturally and have a more resilient face to the bank,” Murphy told the commission. “Unfortunately, the three storms in a week and the storm on December 18 weren’t kind to this area. It’s kind of put the project in a bit of a predicament.”
Weston & Sampson had already conducted several surveys of the area, Murphy said, but that work was now unusable due to the impact of the storms.
“Unfortunately, now the entire topography of the bank face has changed and we’re going to have to resurvey,” Murphy added. “We had an emergency meeting last week to get them (Weston & Sampson) back on-island to resurvey.”
Beyond the need to resurvey the area, the immediate problem is figuring out how to access the area with the equipment necessary to remove the debris.
“We’ve run up to another problem with cleaning up the beach: there’s no good access point to get down,” Murphy said. “The bluff face drops anywhere between 12 and 30 feet. We’re investigating going on farther east and west to get the debris off the beach.”
Engelbourg emphasized that while the larger plan for the area was sound, the enforcement order would grant the town immediate authority to remove debris and create a temporary means of access down to the beach if an alternative could not be found.
“The timeline is way too far in the future so we need to do some triage,” Engelbourg said. “I understand that the beach accesses might not be there but we have emergency permit abilities to potentially create a new ramp or a temporary access to the beach or consider alternative technologies like getting a crane..All these things cost money and are effort and time-intensive. An enforcement order gives the town latitude to start that process. Right now they can’t do anything. They technically can’t even pick up debris with no enforcement order. It's not a punitive enforcement order, it allows triage activities to start happening."
Murphy also mentioned the town-sponsored warrant article at the upcoming Annual Town Meeting to appropriate funds through a debt exclusion override to remove the debris. The article would authorize the town to expend money "to make various improvements at Tom Nevers Park including debris removal and erosion control/dune restoration, including the cost of professional services, permitting, engineering, construction, construction supervision, materials and other related professional services, and any other costs incidental and related thereto..."
It was clear, however, that there may not be universal support for spending large sums of taxpayer dollars for coastal resiliency measures at Tom Nevers given the huge list of projects and critical infrastructure that needs protecting elsewhere around the island.
“The town is going to spend tens and probably hundreds of millions of dollars on this sort of project around the island - roads, in town, building levees - I wonder if this is the right spot to be focusing a lot of town money on for a ballfield when we’re talking about Steamboat Wharf, and Hulbert Avenue in town, and ‘Sconset Road, and Sesachacha Pond,” said Conservation Commission member Mark Beale. “There’s not enough money to go around when we’re talking about all the projects for coastal resilience. Saving a ballfield is worthwhile if you have a lot of money, but I don’t think we’re going to have a lot of money. Is the focus on the wrong spot right now?”