The Oak Bluffs selectmen voted Tuesday to restrict traffic on East Chop Drive to one lane this winter out of concern for the unstable condition of the eroding bluff beneath the road. The vote came as the town continues to wrangle for funding to fix the bluff, and as East Chop residents press for a complete closure of the road this winter.
“Closing the road only one way is just putting off the inevitable,” East Chop Association president Craig Dripps told the selectmen.
But the board opted for a more conservative approach, voting 4-1 to restrict traffic to the lane furthest from the bluff starting after Columbus Day and to completely close the road during and after severe storms. The four selectmen voting for this option said they felt the one-lane closure would be sufficient and they wanted to explore how to address the impact on the neighborhood before they closed it entirely.
The road will be restricted to southbound traffic (heading from Vineyard Haven toward Oak Bluffs) between Brewster and Munroe avenues. It was not yet clear how the road would be barricaded.
Coastal erosion, exacerbated by severe storms, has long undermined the bluff under the scenic roadway. The road was closed for two years after Hurricane Bob in 1991, and after Hurricane Sandy last October the road was restricted to one-way traffic for most of the winter, and closed completely for a few weeks following a February snowstorm. It was reopened to all traffic for the summer because of concerns about funneling cars through side streets in the neighborhood.
The East Chop Association owns the bluff, which has experienced slumping in recent years as the bottom of the bluff has been carved out by waves. This in turn threatens East Chop Drive, a town-owned road that sits on top of the bluff.
The association voted in August to recommend a complete road closure. Dozens of East Chop residents then went before the town roads and byways committee to advocate for the closure, citing concern about safety and a need to be proactive. Some said they were concerned about traffic being diverted into side streets and the East Chop neighborhood, causing a dangerous situation for pedestrians and bikers.
The roads and byways committee, and now the selectmen, discussed working with the Martha’s Vineyard Commission to explore other options for the neighborhoods, including speed bumps or adding stop signs.
Other issues for discussion included possible added restrictions for heavy trucks on the bluff and emergency access to East Chop homes if the road was closed entirely.
One further option is to move the road over into Lincoln Park, which highway superintendent Richard Combra said would cost at least $10,000 and would necessitate an easement from the East Chop Association.
At Tuesday’s meeting, selectman Gregory Coogan noted that closing the road for the winter would be a loss to the entire Island.
“Closing it all winter does affect other people besides East Chop,” he said, adding that a lot of people visit because it is “a gorgeous spot.”
“Why not do a one-way again and do it better,” agreed selectman Gail Barmakian. “That would alleviate a lot of the other major issues that to me are a little bit overwhelming. I also think that will address the quality of the bluff if it’s the lane that is the inside lane.”
“I think the least impact for the neighborhood at this point in time would be to do one-way inside and more permanent signage,” selectman Kathy Burton said.
Selectman Michael Santoro, chairman of the roads and byways committee, said there was no easy fix.
“Until we have mitigation plans for traffic in the neighborhood you can’t close it both ways,” he said. “I’m not ready to do that until we have plans in place for signage . . . there’s going to be wear and tear on some of those roads.”
He added that he felt no one could give a definite answer on whether the bluff is going to cave in.
But selectman Walter Vail, who lives on East Chop, and other residents, advocated for a complete closure. They noted that many drivers ignored the one-way closure last winter.
“Get it closed so we can do it the right way,” said Mr. Vail. “I happen to think [the one-way closure last winter] didn’t work,” he added. “There were a lot of trucks that just plain ignored it.”
Conservation commission chairman Joan Hughes underlined concerns about the structural integrity of the road. She said no engineer will say definitively if and when the road will fail, but coastal storms are a worry, especially in the winter. “[Engineers] really feel that any load capacity on the top of that bluff is a serious danger. So it’s sort of going at our own peril. Their advice is don’t keep trucks and traffic coming there, it is constantly undermining the stability of a fragile thing,” she said, adding: “Once it goes, it’s gone . . . and once it’s completely gone we are not going to get it back.”
East Chop resident Rick Herrick joined the advocates for complete road closure. “The road doesn’t really need to be opened for nine months,” he said. “I don’t think the one-way is really effective. We live on the road, we watched all the people cheat on it . . . unless you do something fairly proactive you’re going to lose it,” he added.
Mr. Dripps said East Chop residents are willing to trade inconvenience for safety. “People on the chop have already accepted the fact that they can deal with this,” he said.
He continued: “There was a pretty strong feeling at our annual meeting in August that closing it needs to be done, with the understanding that it will be re-opened when it was fixed. In the meantime we’ll figure out the best way and they’re willing to accept that. It seems to me that closing the road only one way is just putting off the inevitable.”
Meanwhile, the town continues its efforts to obtain federal funding to fix the bluff. The town applied for Federal Emergency Management funding (FEMA) for the project, which is estimated at $12 million. At the annual town meeting last April, voters approved $75,000 for design work for the repairs.
Town administrator Robert Whritenour told the Gazette Thursday that “it’s been a back and forth with FEMA for a whole year,” He said things appeared to be progressing when FEMA sent the town a project worksheet and gave basic approval for about $4.1 million in repairs for the bluff, less than originally requested. The town would be responsible for 25 per cent of that cost if FEMA approved their request.
But then came word that the town was not eligible to receive FEMA money because the damaged area is under private ownership, Mr. Whritenour said.
The public/private arrangement has been a concern in the past, but town officials said this year they believe that because public money has gone toward repairs before, the area is eligible for funding.
“The entire East Chop bluff has already been armored by public funds,” Mr. Whritenour said. The town is now working with FEMA and the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency to see if the most recent decision can be reversed. And the possibility of transferring ownership of the bluff from the association to the town might be on the table. This, too, was discussed in the past, but there were concerns about the town’s liability.
“We are investigating all of the various options that are available to us,” Mr. Whritenour said. “We’re not really clear what impact [transfer of ownership] would have on this particular situation.”
Transferring ownership or any repairs would need town meeting approval, he said.
At the meeting Tuesday, Mr. Dripps said the East Chop Association “would be delighted to cross any t’s and dot any i’s,” to transfer ownership.
“In the meantime we need to deal with the ownership of it so we can get money from [the federal government],” Mr. Coogan said. “To me that’s the biggest issue of all, is how do we fix this thing long-term?”