Beach Restoration on Nantucket

Sponsor: US Aquifer
Sponsor Liaison: Oscar Plotkin
Student Team: Dustin Lombardi, Christa O’Rourke, Thomas Wise
Abstract: Although Nantucket Island experiences severe coastal erosion, control projects are extremely controversial. The goal of this project was to assess the regulatory, political, and social feasibility of testing innovative coastal erosion techniques on Nantucket. Through extensive interviews, archival research, and observation at public hearings, we determined the structure of the regulatory process and identified the opinions and concerns of key players. We conclude that getting approval for any innovative approach to erosion control will likely be a difficult, lengthy process.
Link: Beach_Restoration_on_Nantucket


Executive Summary

Coastal erosion is a major problem in the United States. Approximately 1,500 homes are lost to erosion each year, and it is estimated that coastal property owners in the United States experience over 500 million dollars in total damages each year (Heinz 2000, 111). Erosion rates vary along the coasts, but many areas along the Atlantic coastline have experienced land losses of fifty to one‐hundred feet in the last thirty years alone.

In Massachusetts, sixty‐five acres of coastal land is lost every year and 72% of the Massachusetts shoreline shows a long‐term erosional trend. Nantucket’s southern coast has some of the state’s highest long‐term erosion rates averaging twelve feet each year in some locations (O’Connell & Leatherman, 28). Siasconset Beach, an area of expensive homes on Nantucket’s eastern shore, has experienced major land losses. Many homes have been lost and others moved further inland in order to avoid damages (Rodriguez, 1999; Curtis & Davis, 1997; Turner & Leatherman, 1997). A group of homeowners formed the non‐profit Sconset Beach Preservation Fund (SBPF) in the early 1990s in an effort to mitigate erosion of the Sconset Bluff and protect their homes. The SBPF has been the most active group on the Island exploring innovative ways to try to control coastal erosion.

Various erosion control techniques have been tried over the years to prevent or mitigate coastal erosion damage in the US. Traditional erosion control methods typically involve the construction of physical barriers, such as dykes, groins, and sea‐walls. These “hard engineering” approaches have fallen out of favor in recent years since they cause a variety of adverse ancillary impacts, such as ‘scouring.’ Some states and local governments, including Nantucket, have banned the use of such ‘hard engineering’ approaches in favor of ‘soft engineering approaches. This type of coastal management involves improving the condition of a beachhead. The most common form of this strategy is “beach nourishment,” which is simply the addition of sediment at a rate that matches the rate of erosion.

Many coastal management projects have been conducted on Nantucket in order to combat erosion. Due to the fact that the implementation of this type of technology sparks so much controversy, however, the town of Nantucket has developed laws and policies to regulate coastal management projects. Various town boards and committees are charged with the protection of all wetland resource areas and carefully scrutinize any project that presents potential risks to these areas. The Conservation Commission takes the lead role in this regard.

GreenBeach has developed a new approach to control beach erosion that involves the application of an eponymous propriety substance. They have tested the technique in various parts of the world including Oman, France and Brazil, and would like to conduct more extensive testing in the United States. The goal of our project was to assess the regulatory, political, and social feasibility of testing such innovative coastal erosion techniques on Nantucket. The project did not assess and makes no claims about the effectiveness or safety of the technique. To achieve this goal, the team conducted interviews with a variety of town officials and members of relevant organizations. These interviews not only allowed us to acquire knowledge of the regulations and policies relevant to coastal management, along with explanations of past erosion control attempts on Nantucket, but they also provided insight as to the opinions and concerns of the key individuals and organizations involved.. We examined the town’s newspaper, The Nantucket Inquirer, which highlighted the most current issues Nantucket was facing that involve erosion and coastal management. The team attended public hearings where proponents of coastal management projects presented their cases to the Conservation Commission. The largest of these cases involved the Siasconset Beach Preservation Fund (SBPF). Their proposed project illustrates the nature and range of issues that any future erosion control effort is likely to encounter, and was therefore used as a case study in this report to reflect the issues and provide a tangible account of the regulatory and permitting process of coastal management projects.

During the public hearing regarding the SBPF project proposal, a variety of concerns were raised. Representatives from various concerned organizations, such as the Nantucket Land Council, attended the hearing and shared their concerns and opinions with the Commission and the SBPF. The Island’s fishermen, whose lack of support in the previous SBPF proposal ultimately contributed to its denial, concern themselves with the safety of the marine environment adjacent to Siasconset Beach. The impact of a project on the environment and natural processes was a major priority. The effect of a project on the beaches adjacent to the project area is also a consideration. The Land Council charges itself with ensuring that a system is not starved of sediment. The amount of data presented in the public hearing can also influence whether or not a project proposal gains approval. In the SBPF hearing, the Conservation Commission expressed that they wished to see examples of locations where the proposed technology has been proved to be successful.

Based on our research of the political and regulatory environment on Nantucket, we have concluded that almost any effort to manage erosion on wetland resource areas, particularly beaches, will likely raise concerns and generate substantial controversy. Because of this controversy, we recommend that the proponent of any coastal management project proceed with honesty and openness, and careful attention to the diverse concerns of various constituencies.

After attending public hearings concerning current erosion control projects and interviewing officials responsible for reviewing these proposals, we concluded that one of the most crucial elements in a successful proposal is the submission of sufficient high quality, valid supporting data. The project should anticipate the kinds of questions that are likely to be raised by any participant in the process and plan to provide appropriate data to answer those questions as part of the submission process and preferably in advance of any public meetings. We recommend that the proponent of a coastal management project speak with public officials and various other likely interested and affected parties, and try to identify their likely major concerns prior to filing a notice of intent. As demonstrated in the SBPF case, knowing the concerns of a party prior to the public hearing can aid in addressing these concerns and preparing an appropriate response to any questioning. Failure to address such questions during a public hearing can put the proponent on the defensive, and may even be construed by the public as an effort to hide information.