The Sconset Beach Preservation Fund (SBPF) announced Monday morning that it was calling an end to its decade-long effort to fight erosion along Nantucket's eastern shoreline, and vowed to honor its obligations to remove the geotubes at the base of the Sconset bluff if the Conservation Commission proceeds with its enforcement order against the organization.
"With a profound sense of disappointment, SBPF has decided to conclude its decade-long effort to protect the public assets and homes along northern Baxter Road from the ravages of sea level rise and coastal erosion," SBPF president Josh Posner wrote in a letter to town manager Libby Gibson, the Select Board, and the Conservation Commission. "Our disappointment is particularly deep because we have successfully demonstrated (through years of hard work and study) an environmentally and economically sound method of protecting these assets and homes for decades into the future. In addition, a notice of intent that would implement these protections on a sustainable basis for the benefit of an expanded area currently is pending before the Nantucket Conservation Commission. 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. 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."
After years of hearings, litigation, and acrimony over the controversial geotube project, the SBPF was ordered by the Conservation Commission in 2021 to remove the 900-foot sand-filled geotube 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 SBPF had appealed that 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 unveiled a draft Notice of Intent late last year 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 Posner said Monday that he saw no path forward for that plan, and "as a result, SBPF believes that the Town and SBPF should withdraw their pending notice of intent. We urge the Town to take over the operation of the existing geotubes at least for a short time while continuing to try to work with the Commission to find a sensible way forward. Otherwise, sadly, the alternative is to give in to the opponents and proceed with removal of the current project."
Posner told the Current that the SBPF would not disband as an organization, and would "probably continue in some fashion. Eventually we hope that common sense will prevail and an opportunity to set up a sustainable system may emerge in the future."
While the SBPF pledged to uphold its obligations spelled out in the original permit for the geotube project regarding paying for the removal of the structure, Posner once again warned that homes and Baxter Road would quickly be threatened once the geotube is gone and called it "foolish" to proceed with the enforcement action.
"If the Town is unable to find another way forward, SBPF will stand behind its obligations with respect to removal of the current project (no matter how foolish removal may be)," Posner wrote. "We will continue working with the Town and the Commission to ensure that the existing project is removed in as safe and appropriate a manner as is possible, recognizing that the loss of the homes at the top of the bluff and the closing of Baxter Road will almost certainly follow shortly thereafter. To this end, as directed by the Commission, SBPF will submit documentation pertaining to its proposed removal plans to the Commission in advance of the Commission’s January 12, 2023, meeting."
Jeff Carlson, the director of the town's Natural Resources Department, confirmed there is bond to cover the costs of the removal of the geotube that the town holds.
The removal process is "partially controlled by the license from the Select Board as well. At a minimum the town holds a bond to cover the cost of removal that SBPF provided," Carlson said.
On the town's side, there was a mix of surprise and disappointment to the SBPF announcement on Monday. Former Select Board member Melissa Murphy, who had spent significant time during her tenure on the board working to broker a compromise and a path forward on the geotube project, said the SBPF withdrawing from a "public-private partnership" may ultimately cost the island's taxpayers the most.
"This is a disappointing outcome for Nantucket, especially for the taxpayers of Nantucket," said Murphy, who stepped down from the board late last year to go back to college. "Whether we are investing in coastal resiliency efforts as a partner or paying to relocate Baxter Road to preserve public utilities and access, my greatest motivator to find a public-private partnership during my tenure on the Select Board was to protect taxpayers from overly burdensome costs that are rising in so many areas of our Town, not the least of which is coastal resiliency. On the other hand, the solutions presented have to be carefully vetted and our partners in preservation must be respectful of the process. There are a lot of lessons learned the hard way through this specific project, and I hope the Board can be reflective and use them as they build resiliency plans around the island."
Ashley Erisman, the chair of the Conservation Commission, said she was surprised to hear the news Monday morning and Posner's assertion that the commission was not inclined to approve the new joint NOI since it hadn't yet been formally reviewed.
"The town as the property owner, I'm assuming they were as caught off guard as I was," Erisman said. "He (Posner) made assertions we weren't going to vote for it (the new NOI to expand the geotubes), but we haven't got to the nuts and bolts of it. We haven't scratched the surface of hearing this...I’m just processing through what this potentially means and thinking for the town, I know the Select Board has admitted the town would struggle to manage a project like this."
Another Conservation Commission member, Linda Williams, described her reaction as being "irritated," by the sudden withdrawal of SBPF from the effort.
"I am pretty irritated by this latest maneuver, particularly after they finally made the right application with the Town as co-applicant to the Con Com," Williams said in a message to the Current. "If this is some sort of ploy, then I am really really irritated, as it is inappropriate, and we have had enough of this confusing and certainly ill-timed stuff. There is an application coming before us, there is a request to extend the removal order, ALL of which should be played out. They do not know how the Con Com will vote and whether they can get four votes. Those opposed to something are always the loudest voices and many times in the minority. The state may side with the Town and SBPF. IF this was done to see what the Town will do on its own, that is also a bad decision and unfair to the property owners and the Town at this point. Beyond that, I do not know what to think about this out of nowhere. SBPF is NOT helping themselves with this after all they have been through on behalf of the property owners out there."
The Nantucket Coastal Conservancy, a non-profit advocacy group that has opposed the geotube project, released the following statement in the hours after SBPF made its announcement:
"While we welcome the breaking news that SBPF has apparently given up its pursuit of expanding the geotubes on the public beach below the bluff in Sconset, we know that the decision must have been a very difficult one for everyone involved. We trust that, going forward, we can now turn our attention to the needs of the entire island as together we work to implement the Coastal Resilience Plan (CRP). Central to the CRP is the commitment to protect and preserve our coastal resources, especially our beaches, for as long as we can."