The Edgartown conservation commission approved a large, complicated project Wednesday to move a Wasque Point home threatened by erosion. The approval comes after months of discussion during which town boards, experts and residents grappled with the environmental and logistical details of the project while faced with the urgency of a rapidly-eroding coastal bluff.
The effort to move Richard and Jennifer Schifter’s 8,300-square-foot house, a guest house, garage and a neighboring home the family purchased to make way for the house move will now get underway. A swimming pool and basketball court will be taken down and relocated, and utilities and sewering will also be moved. On Wednesday, barges of equipment arrived to be unloaded at Chappy Point. The Edgartown selectmen this week approved use of part of Chappaquiddick Point parking lot from March 27 through April 3 to unload the equipment. Top soil stripping and tree removal carried out by John Keene Excavation is set to begin Friday.
The conservation commission voted 5-0 to preliminary approve the project pending an order of conditions that will be issued in the next week and a half. The Planning Board unanimously approved the project Thursday night, adding conditions including monthly site visits by planning board members. The board also has yet to approve the application to move the swimming pool, which requires a special permit.
"This is a very unique situation," planning board member Michael McCourt said before the board voted. "We're not moving houses every day here."
After the house was approved there was visible relief in the room. "Happy digging," one of the board members said.
The lengthy process began last fall, when the conservation commission was first approached to approve emergency measures for the house. At that time, the rapid rate of erosion was called unprecedented, with the coastal bank losing .87 feet a day. In October, the commission approved a coir envelope system to stem the erosion, and coconut fiber envelopes filled with sand were stacked on the bluff. Plans later unfolded to move the house and surrounding structures, and the Schifters purchased a neighboring house and property from the Leland family. The so-called Leland house will be moved to make way for the relocated house, guest house and garage. At the new location, the Schifter house will be 275 feet away from the coastal bank.
Two weeks ago, the ocean was 40 feet away from the guest house and 24 feet away from a stone enclosure around the swimming pool.
The issue has been a subject of interest to residents, especially those in the small Chappaquiddick community. In recent months, long weekly meetings on the topic have been well-attended as details of the move were sorted out and regulatory requirements navigated. Officials debated referring the project to the to the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, and the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) asked to view the top soil excavation in case artifacts are found. There also have been concerns about whether the house move would exacerbate erosion rates or visually alter the Wasque landscape, as well as worry about how the project will impact Chappaquiddick’s rural dirt roads.
All of the buildings involved will be excavated before being moved. The main house will be moved with the basement (which has a theatre and bowling alley) intact, while the guest house, Leland house and garage will be cut off from their foundations and have foundations built in the new locations. Excavation has already begun around the guest house. International Chimney Corporation, a New York-based company that specializes in relocation, is overseeing the house move.
During the meeting Wednesday, the commission revisited a few major concerns, including what will be done with 40,200 yards of soil that will be excavated during the house move.
Engineer George Sourati said that a layer of topsoil will be stored offsite at Chappaquiddick property owned by Gerald Jeffers; the remaining fill will be stored in piles on the site. The sides of the 50-foot piles will be covered in coconut fiber for protection, and the tops of the piles will be covered in the event of wind or a storm. Most of the soil will be reused during the relocation process, he said. About 5,600 yards will remain, and there are plans to use that soil for beach nourishment.
One of the biggest issues raised by residents has been truck traffic on Chappaquiddick’s rural dirt roads.
“I’m concerned about the number of trucks . . . I think it’s very dangerous, especially as spring comes with bicycles and children and people walking,” commissioner and Chappaquiddick resident Edith Potter said.
The applicants are working with the police to provide police detail for large trucks.
According to a work schedule, there will be about 5,000 truck trips to and from the site between April and September, and about 1,500 trips between October and December. Mr. Keene said work would be done between 7:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. on weekdays. Most of the truck trips, about 1,500, will take place in April during top soil removal.
A sticking point for the commission was an escrow account to ensure the work would be completed. Town counsel Ronald H. Rappaport is abstaining from the project, conservation agent Jane Varkonda said, so the committee needs to look at who can handle the matter for the town.
“This project has the potential for tremendous disaster,” Mr. Vincent said.
The board also discussed a fee for the amount of time it will take Ms. Varkonda to inspect the site.
The meeting featured sparring between coastal engineer Trey Ruthven, the commission’s consultant, and Peter Rosen, a coastal geologist hired by the Schifters.
“No one assessed best case and worst case for this bluff,” Mr. Ruthven said, saying he didn’t believe the home would be relocated far enough inland to be safe from future erosion rates, and questioning the accuracy of Mr. Rosen’s predictions.
Mr. Rosen said that his estimates show the erosion slowing over the coming years.
“What difference does it make? Would you like the house to fall down into the ocean or should we move it?”, Mr. Sourati said.
“Assuming this is happening, we have to get moving. We have to get going,” International Chimney Corporation president Rick Lohr said. “I’m not going to put myself in the position where I’m going to jeopardize people in this move unless it’s safe to move. We’ve seen a change since November when we first looked at [the site].”
“We have moved as quickly as we possibly could,” commissioner Christina Brown said.
“It’s Mr. Schifter’s money that he’s using to do this; it’s not our money,” commission chair Edward W. Vincent Jr. said. “You fully understand any permit here is at your own risk, at the client’s own risk,” he told Mr. Sourati.