A Fight Over Nantucket’s Bluff Pits Neighbor Against Neighbor

Houses along Baxter Road on the island of Nantucket have always been precarious real estate: property at the edge of the world with a built-in expiration date.

Baxter runs parallel to Sconset Bluff, a stunning sand escarpment on the easternmost point of the Massachusetts island — the boomerang-shaped wedge of sand and clay 30 miles south of Cape Cod. Some say that when a developer carved the area into lots, he anticipated the inevitable when he made each parcel a double lot bisected by the road, giving owners a place to retreat from the encroaching sea. Climate change has only made the place more vulnerable, as sea level rise and fiercer storms have accelerated the natural processes of a sandy coast. In the last two decades, Sconset Bluff has been eroding at a rate of roughly three or four feet every year.

Through the years, some homeowners have retreated, moving their houses as far back as their lots allowed, often as much as 75 or 100 feet; others moved across the street. Still others, disheartened and frightened, moved their houses into town or, heartbreakingly, demolished them.

During the brutal winter that followed Hurricane Sandy, a final, late-season nor’easter in March of 2013 tore 30 feet from the bluff, and the town of Nantucket decided that nature had gone far enough.

The town allowed a group of homeowners to try to protect their property, if they were willing to foot the bill themselves. For what would eventually swell to a cost of $10 million, these owners installed some 900 feet of what are known as geotubes — imagine a sort of soft sea wall, made from plastic fiber and filled with sand, like a giant sand burrito — at the base of the cliff, just east of their homes.

You can’t see them, but underneath the raked sand at the base of the bluff are the geotubes.Credit…Vanessa Leroy for The New York Times

The project ignited a conflict that is still roiling the island: The battle for the bluff, as some have called it, has become an existential crisis about what to do in the face of climate change, as neighbors challenge neighbors over whose property is more important, and the town and courts attempt to referee. The conflict mirrors those playing out in coastal communities around the world: Do you protect the properties along the coast, or practice what’s known as “managed retreat,” which is what coastal scientists advise and most communities are not yet ready to face?

Beaches are dynamic and ever-changing. Sconset Bluff has been behaving as sandy coastlines do the world over, replenishing and renewing itself even as it eroded and tumbled into the sea. In the face of a rising sea, a beach will simply move inland. It is development — people and buildings — that stops those natural processes.

‘Bigger Than Me’

The geotubes were to be a pilot project, with the understanding, the homeowners believed, that the town would allow them to install them in front of their own properties if the strategy worked. For the town, it was a chance to put off planning — and paying — for the day the whole area began to disintegrate and the infrastructure would have to be relocated. A recent report commissioned by the town estimated that the cost of moving the north end of Baxter Road inland would start at $30 million.

William D. Cohan, above, and his wife, Deborah Futter bought their shingle-style house on Baxter Road in 2009 and moved it in 2014. They are now resigned to losing it altogether.Credit…Vanessa Leroy for The New York Times

The geotubes were an elegant solution, said William D. Cohan, a journalist and one of the homeowners. And who could possibly object to property owners doing all they could to protect their turf and gift the town at the same time?

Just about everyone, as it happened.

On a recent Monday, as a veteran cabby from Judy’s Taxi drove me to Siasconset — or Sconset, as it is better known — Nantucket was socked in with fog.

“I see the headlines,” he said when I asked what he thought about the geotubes. Coverage of this long-running saga and the attendant lawsuits are a staple of the two local papers.

“I figure the issue is bigger than me,” he said, “and I move on.” (A year-rounder for the last two decades, with an 18-year-old son he raised on the island, he declined to give his name.)

As we drove up Baxter Road, lined with uniformly adorable and relatively modest weathered-gray shingled houses, he pointed out the empty lots, small rectangles of weedy turf where houses once stood, and the sandy path from which a visitor might peer over the crumbling cliff and see the geotubes — big lumps under a stretch of raked sand.

There were spaces to park and printed signs explaining how the geotubes work. “Erosion Project Viewing,” proclaimed one. “Propaganda Point” is what some locals call the place.

There are signs explaining how the geotubes work at the Erosion Project Viewing area on Baxter Road. Some locals call the place Propaganda Point.Credit…Vanessa Leroy for The New York Times

“Did you take the audio tour?” asked Josh Posner, an affordable-housing developer and the president of the Siasconset Beach Preservation Fund, an organization he and other Baxter Road homeowners formed in the 1990s when their backyards began falling into the ocean. (Neighbors like Amos Hostetter Jr., the billionaire cable-television mogul, are supporters, as are Peter and Jeffrey Soros, and F. Helmut Weymar, the M.I.T.-educated commodities analyst and a founder, with Mr. Hostetter’s father, of Commodities Corp., now a subsidiary of Goldman Sachs.)

Mr. Posner was joking: The placards on Baxter Road are so old that the audio tour is a telephone number with a recording.

Now 72, he has spent every summer on the island since he was 10. He and his wife, Eileen Rudden, who retired from a career in high tech in Cambridge, Mass., still summer in the shingled cottage Mr. Posner’s parents bought in 1963. The Posners have three children and five grandchildren who enjoy the same beach and have the same bike-riding adventures that Mr. Posner and his siblings had in the 1960s.

The Posners, who moved their house back about 50 feet in 2007 and have lost 10 feet of yard since then, are criticized in some circles as wealthy summer residents behaving selfishly at the expense of the locals. But ironically, Mr. Posner is responsible for two mixed-income housing projects on the island, which have drawn the usual fire, he said. Affordable housing is the other urgent issue dividing well-heeled communities like this, as historic towns weigh the aesthetic “costs” of increased density with a dire need for housing.

Recently, he said, a neighbor told him, “‘One of your projects is saving the island and one of them is ruining it.’ I said, ‘Which one is which?’ I think they’re both saving the island.”

Josh Posner, an affordable-housing developer, has spent every summer on Nantucket since he was 10. He and his wife, Eileen Rudden, moved their house back about 50 feet in 2007 and have lost 10 feet of yard since then.Credit…Vanessa Leroy for The New York Times

As Mr. Posner explained it, the homeowners group first proposed a sea wall after the bluff collapsed in 2013. But sea walls are problematic, bolstering the area they face in the short term, while increasing erosion elsewhere.

Beach nourishment is another strategy many communities have tried, famously those in New Jersey, the Carolinas and Florida, where the federal government foots the bill — often billions of dollars — for the Army Corps of Engineers to dump sand each year on these shrinking beaches. But local fisherman objected because they worried the imported sand would harm marine life.

So the homeowners settled on geotubes, which combine elements of both: They’re a bulwark, to be sure, but one that is easier and less expensive to remove than a sea wall, if (or when) they cause increased erosion elsewhere. And the homeowners promised to add “sacrificial sand” every year — at a cost of $2 million, which they would also pay for — so the beach in front, below and above the tubes would be replenished.

A Devil’s Bargain

It was a devil’s bargain, many felt. The Conservation Commission, the regulatory board whose job it is to uphold state and local wetlands protection laws, argued that coastal scientists have shown that all engineered structures, including geotubes, impede a beach’s natural behaviors and increase erosion elsewhere. The commission denied the homeowners’ application for a permit, but was overruled by the state when the homeowners appealed.

Public beach advocates, like D. Anne Atherton, of the Nantucket Coastal Conservancy, were opposed for the same reasons. Others, like Blair Perkins, who leads ecotours off Nantucket’s beaches, worried about the source of the sacrificial sand: It’s hard to mimic the material of a particular area, which is vital to the health of the marine life, he said — “whales, seals and fish, right down to the plankton.”

Then there were fisherman like Josh Eldridge, who was not so much opposed to the geotubes as disheartened by the entire process. He and other local fishermen got involved when an earlier strategy to stabilize the bluff — jute bags filled with sand, like mini-geotubes — went horribly wrong. The bags exploded during the winter of 2013 and wiped out what he described as one of the most productive fishing areas in New England.

“Now it’s a desert,” said Mr. Eldridge, 49, who changed his business from charter fishing to running a children’s ecotour company called Critter Cruise. “It still hasn’t recovered.”

The homeowners may have won the first round, but as the years dragged on, Mr. Posner said, he and his neighbors were becoming increasingly frustrated that they hadn’t received approval to expand the project. Opponents of the project said they had the photos to prove the geotubes were causing erosion on other Nantucket beaches, despite the sacrificial sand. The homeowners countered that there was no erosion on the beaches on either end of the tubes or in front of them, and wasn’t that proof the strategy was a success?

Each side accused the other of cherry-picking data.

“We’ve had a wonderful run here,” Mr. Posner said, as I walked with him out to the edge of his tidy yard with its heart-stopping view and looked back at his cottage. “If it really all washed away, it would be a tragedy, but we’ve got no hard feelings. What keeps me awake at night is not losing the house. It’s knuckling under to unthinking nonsense. We have clearly demonstrated an effective and balanced way to adapt to climate change without harming others that many coastal communities can learn from.”

In 2020, the homeowners group decided to stop adding sacrificial sand. It made no sense, Mr. Posner said, to continue to spend $2 million a year on a project that had no hope of expansion. “We told the town, ‘We’re done. We can’t afford to keep complying with the permit.’ And the town came to us and said, ‘Don’t give up. We’re going to hire an outside expert, and if your project passes muster, we will join with you and march hand in hand down this road as partners.’”

About a year ago, Arcadis, an environmental company hired by the town, issued its report, 50-plus pages weighing the costs and benefits of all sorts of options: keeping the tubes, removing the tubes, extending the tubes, beach nourishment, vegetation and more. It is a remarkable document that reads rather like a mediation agreement between a divorcing couple, as it attempts to hash out what has become a bitter fight over how to handle the very real effects of climate change.

Boiled down, it essentially says that keeping the tubes may be the least costly strategy — albeit a temporary one — but that if the community can’t agree to do that, it had better think long and hard about planning a “managed retreat” in the face of cataclysmic coastal erosion.

“It has come down to this bizarre battle between the people who are sitting on the edge of the world, who want to save their homes, and those who think they should not be allowed to do so,” said Mr. Cohan, the journalist, who wrote about his community’s travails for Vanity Fair in 2013. He and his wife, Deborah Futter, a book editor, bought their shingle-style house in 2009 — at $600,000, he said, it seemed both a steal and incredibly risky — and moved it in 2014 (for more than it cost to buy it). They are now resigned to losing it altogether.

“It’s a fundamental principle of American society: being able to do what you want at your own expense to protect your property,” Mr. Cohan said. “In a place like Florida, you have ‘Stand Your Ground’ laws, where they can take a gun and shoot someone who comes onto their property. But here in Puritan Nantucket, we can’t even spend the money to put in this system that protects the bluff on a beach where nobody goes, because that’s not God’s way, that’s not God’s vision. This is a pile of sand in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, and if it’s God’s will that it disappear — which it will be — then we, as man, should not do anything to prevent that.”

To this, Ms. Atherton, of the Nantucket Coastal Conservancy, counters: “Our pristine public beaches and our historic character are what make Nantucket Nantucket. Any attempts at delaying the impacts of erosion should rely on nature-based solutions. The geotubes are not that. They are an engineered structure that causes harm to our public beaches.”

Lawsuits, Lawsuits and More Lawsuits

In the fall of 2021, there was so much legal activity that it was hard to keep track of it all. The Conservation Commission had already ordered that the geotubes be removed, saying that the homeowners had violated the terms of their permit by not adding sand, among other things. The homeowners group went to court, saying the Conservation Commission had no right to order them to do so. Robert Greenhill, the mergers-and-acquisitions mogul, who owns property on nearly 70 acres to the north of Sconset, filed his own lawsuit, saying that he has lost two acres of beach since the geotubes were installed. By the spring, there were lawsuits from other parties, and more appeals.

But as Robert S. Young, a coastal scientist, pointed out, the courts are not the place to adjudicate coastal issues. Judges are not scientists.

“This is our big national problem,” he said, “and we have no plan.”

Dr. Young, the director of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines at Western Carolina University, advises communities on beach-management issues and cautioned against the geotubes back in 2013. “Are we really going to spend all this money to hold every single shoreline in place? Is this the plan?” he continued. “And if it is, where’s the federal interest and where’s the private interest, and who is going to track the damage that’s being done? And if we’re willing to admit we can’t hold every shoreline in place forever, then what?”

This modest midcentury cottage sold last fall, although it’s just a heartbeat away from the cliff. Credit…Vanessa Leroy for The New York Times

Astonishingly, property along the most imperiled stretch of Baxter Road has continued to tempt. Last fall, a comely midcentury cottage, just a heartbeat away from the cliff, sold for $899,000. This summer, another Baxter Road house went on the market — a lovely weathered cottage a few feet from the edge of the bluff, priced at $1.25 million. There were multiple offers, and it closed in July, at the asking price.

On the Friday before Labor Day, a judge ruled on one of the issues, saying the Conservation Commission was within its rights to order the geotubes removed. He acknowledged the “potential implications” of what might happen if the geotubes were removed, but noted that while “the implications are significant,” it was outside the scope of the legal issue that had been presented to the court to “weight those risks against other strategies which could hypothetically be undertaken in response to erosion.”

What happens next? As Matt Fee, a longtime Nantucket town selectman said, “That’s what we’re all trying to figure out.”

In the meantime, winter is coming.

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