Legality Of Excavator Work Along Sconset Bluff Remains Unresolved

JohnCarl McGrady •

A video posted to Facebook by the Nantucket Coastal Conservancy in June appeared to show an excavator at the base of the Sconset Bluff moving large amounts of sand. The video sparked ire on social media and led to at least one letter to the town, but even now, over a month later, the legality of the work remains unclear.

The work appears to involve an array of coir tubes—long cylindrical rolls packed with coconut fibers that are used for erosion control—which are not part of the nearby Sconset Beach Preservation Fund (SBPF) geotube project. Under specific conditions, the owners of the array are allowed to do maintenance work on the tubes if they notify the Natural Resources Department at least two days in advance, which Natural Resources Director Jeff Carlson confirmed they did.

A screenshot from the video in question

However, if, as some allege, the work occurred below the high tide line and involved excavating sand from the beach itself, it could violate existing regulations and conditions. But despite studying the video carefully, Carlson and his staff could not determine if that was the case.

“We’ve been looking at this quite a bit and checking in on it,” Carlson said. “To go down now and say definitively that it happened below the jurisdictional high water boundary and it was definitively excavated material from the beach and not material they had brought down, I’m not sure we could ever definitively prove that.”

One issue is that the jurisdictional high water boundary can sometimes be lower than actual observed high water due to unpredictable tidal fluctuations. As a result, work that appears to be below the high water line is sometimes legally considered above it.

Outside the Natural Resource Department, opinions are divided.

“This private erosion-control project (easily identified by the fact that it has formed a distinctive seaward promontory) has been the subject of previous discussion and action by the Conservation Commission,” D. Anne Atherton, a spokesperson for the Nantucket Coastal Conservancy, wrote in an email to various town officials. “If this un-permitted intrusion into the public beach (that is protected by both the state Wetlands Protection Act and the Nantucket Wetland Bylaw, as well as additional regulations governing work below the water line) is corroborated, it is one of the most, if not the most, egregious violations of its kind of which we are aware.”

“By appearances, it definitely looks like things that shouldn’t have been happening were happening,” Carlson admitted.

Others see no reason for concern.

“The excavator is being used for normal maintenance of coir terraces being carried out by the usual contractor,” SBPF president Josh Posner wrote in an e-mail to the Current. “This work is done under separate individual contracts for individual homeowners. It is not part of the SBPF geotube project which covers the area north of this work between 87-105 Baxter. The contractor keeps the town Natural Resources (Department) informed of this work.”

Ultimately, the legality of the work may never be resolved.

“I know that’s probably not the answer all wanted to hear,” Carlson admitted.

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