The town has joined the Sconset Beach Preservation Fund (SBPF) in proposing a new erosion-control project at the 'Sconset bluff, marking the start of a new chapter in the decades-long saga.
A formal notice of intent was filed jointly by the town and the SBPF on Thursday with the Conservation Commission, a move the Select Board had authorized on a unanimous vote back in October. The proposal would significantly expand the existing geotube installation along the toe of the 'Sconset bluff, but do so in a phased approach in concert with several other measures, including coir terraces and dune management.
The two parties wrote to the ConCom that "the Project is needed to stabilize Sconset Bluff and protect eligible buildings, the road, and public utilities from imminent harm that otherwise will result from coastal erosion and bluff retreat. The Project satisfies all of the requirements of the Massachusetts Wetlands Protection Act, the Nantucket Wetland Protection Bylaw, and their implementing regulations. It therefore should be approved."
While that may sound straightforward, the notice of intent comes after a tumultuous three years for the SBPF and its fight to save the private homes along the 'Sconset bluff.
Facing an enforcement order to remove the existing 900-foot erosion-control geotube project and a deeply skeptical Conservation Commission, the SBPF back in January waved the white flag and stated its decade-long effort to fight erosion along Baxter Road was over. But just nine months later, it became clear that the project wasn't dead after all as the Select Board voted in October to join forces with the SBPF for a new project.
So now, even as SBPF continues the engineering work necessary to remove the geotubes from the base of the Sconset bluff to comply with the enforcement order from the Conservation Commission - an order which is more than two years old - the non-profit group is betting that a change in the makeup of the commission may provide a path forward for the controversial project.
"We understand this is a high-profile project and that it has generated many different opinions and views among the community at large," wrote Dwight R. Dunk, principal of the environmental engineering and consulting company Epsilon Associates that is representing the SBPF and the town. "The specific project presented here has been crafted with input from many stakeholders and constituents. It represents a compromise in an effort to find a solution that complies with the law, serves the critical purpose of protecting public infrastructure and private property, and finds acceptance from those who will consider it fairly on its merits."
After years of hearings, litigation, and acrimony over the geotube project, the SBPF was ordered by the Conservation Commission in 2021 to remove the 900-foot sand-filled erosion control installation over its failure to abide by the conditions of its permit - specifically the requirement to contribute thousands of cubic yards of sacrificial sand to the project area each year. The Select Board subsequently took the extraordinary step of formally requesting that the Conservation Commission reconsider its previous vote, and the commission pushed back strongly to reject that request. The SBPF had appealed the decision but lost the case in Nantucket Superior Court, where Judge Mark Gildea ruled last September to uphold the Conservation Commission's decision.
Despite the pending removal order, the Select Board and the SBPF announced a new partnership and unveiled a draft Notice of Intent in late 2022 that would have increased the size of the geotube installation from just over 900 feet to more than 4,000 feet along Baxter Road in a phased approach to stabilize the bluff. But in January 2023, SBPF president Josh Posner announced that the organization was giving up its fight.
“Unfortunately, we have become convinced that a majority of the Commission will not support the notice of intent or any other reasonable alternative to demanding removal of the geotubes,” Posner stated at the time. “Given this hurdle, we can see no path forward that is likely to result, at this time, in an approval of the expanded protections the Town of Nantucket and Sconset desperately need."
But things have changed since January, as the Conservation Commission - the members of which are appointed by the Select Board - has a new makeup. Former Conservation Commission chair Ashley Erisman was ousted from her seat in June. One year earlier in 2022, another commissioner who had voted in favor of the removal, Maureen Phillips, was also not reappointed by the Select Board.
“The tone of the commission on dealing with the Select Board in its joint meetings on this and dealing with SBPF on the removal process has changed, and the communications we’ve had with the town on whether they’re interested in pursuing this,” SBPF attorney Steven Cohen told the Current in October. “The SBPF thinks there’s a change in the perspective and tone to move forward with an application.”
For the Select Board, it’s also about buying time as it continues to develop plans to provide alternative access to Baxter Road should part of it get claimed by erosion.
The town’s consultant, Arcadis, completed a report in 2021 about the future of Baxter Road that stated the long-range plan should be strategic retreat, but in the short term, the geotubes should remain in place to provide enough time to complete the planning effort.