Facing an unforeseen deadline for spending a major state grant, the town committee on Squibnocket is working to accelerate its efforts to restore Squibnocket Beach.
The committee learned last week that Chilmark’s $280,000 Coast Zone Management grant must be spent during fiscal year 2015, which ends June 30. It was previously thought that the grant period would end on May 30, 2016.
Committee chairman James Malkin emphasized the need to move forward “with all deliberate speed” in order to meet the deadline. Assuming the town approves a final plan at town meeting in April, he said, work on the project would need to be completed in a short two and a half-month time frame.
“The chances of that happening . . . are pretty slim,” he said at a meeting last Tuesday.
Selectman Warren Doty said if a plan is developed sooner, a special town meeting could be held in January or February. “It’s not a popular time for a meeting, and I don’t know how attendance would be, or how the town would feel about that, but it is an option,” he said.
The committee’s work so far has focused on gathering information from stakeholders, with a goal of providing an update at an October special town meeting. An article will need to be prepared by mid-September.
The issue has been marked by intense environmental study and also politics.
Squibnocket Beach was badly damaged during Hurricane Sandy nearly two years ago.
A plan to restore the beach that was backed by the selectmen and was the result of months of negotiations last year with homeowners at Squibnocket Farm was narrowly rejected at the annual town meeting in April in favor of more study. That plan would have removed a stone revetment, relocated the town parking, built a new access road and added a significant stretch of beach to the town holdings at Squibnocket.
Vocal opponents of the plan included homeowners in Blacksmith Valley, which overlooks Squibnocket.
Alternative proposals are now beginning to take shape. A group called Friends of Squibnocket, which includes Blacksmith Valley residents, presented the results of a site study to the committee last week. Wetlands delineations and projections of what the shoreline might look like if the revetment near the parking lot is removed are included. The group’s final proposal is expected to focus on building a dune ridge to protect a new roadway farther inland.
Tim Rich, former chief of police in Chilmark, outlined a plan that would involve the Friends of Squibnocket purchasing property for a new parking lot farther west, in an area less prone to erosion. Mr. Rich suggested a one-lane access road to Squibnocket Farm. But Warren Spector, a Squibnocket Farm homeowner, said that would be inadequate.
“The volume of traffic in July and August is immense,” Mr. Spector said. “It would be an enormous backup at both ends all July and August if we had one lane.”
Much discussion focused on the potential benefits of a dune ridge. Stanley Humphries, a coastal geologist at LEC Environmental Consultants who is working for the group, said an earlier dune ridge near the beach, as shown in a 1951 photograph, may have succumbed to human activities such as the removal of sand after storms.
Mr. Humphries has studied 12 sites along the south shore and found that dunes higher than 10 feet are generally well vegetated and self-sustaining. As sea level rises, dunes tend to migrate away from the shore, he said, but roads, revetments and parking lots can prevent such natural processes from occurring.
Roads and paths can allow storm water to flow around the dunes, eroding them from all sides, the geologist said.
Tony Orphanos, a member of the Friends of Squibnocket, said stone revetments can encourage scouring beneath the stones, causing severe beach erosion.
Chris Murphy, a vocal opponent of the selectmen’s plan last spring, said he believes the Coastal Zone Management grant reflects the state’s interest in restoring the beach to its natural state.
“My understanding is that that money was essentially given to the town or made available to the town because the state wants to see what will happen when you remove a revetment,” Mr. Murphy said. “Everyone that has spoken about the revetment at the parking lot agrees that the revetment needs to go away.”
He suggested moving ahead with plans to remove the revetment while the committee continues its work.
But others said a comprehensive plan should be developed first. Committee member Steven Flanders said it would be premature to remove the revetment without having a plan for a new access road.
“I think you are going to find that the parking lot will become the beach and there will be no access to the causeway,” Mr. Flanders said. He also noted that the previous dune ridge was gone and questioned how well another one would protect the site.
The Friends of Squibnocket have argued that the situation does not present a crisis, since access to Squibnocket Farm has not been seriously interrupted in 20 years and could be restored in the case of an emergency. Mr. Orphanos said the greater risk would be rushing to address the problem before considering all the factors.
One Squibnocket Farm homeowner questioned whether access could in fact be restored in the case of an emergency. Mr. Humphries said depending on the emergency a state permit might be required to restore the road, but he expected it would be granted.
Almost three months after its first meeting, the town committee is beginning to analyze some of the information it has collected. Two experts from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution have agreed to serve as consultants, and committee members will shortly begin tying up loose ends, including staking out property boundaries and collecting town records.
The selectmen made a presentation to the committee three weeks ago, emphasizing elements of the town master plan relating to the beach. In light of that, Mr. Malkin said he plans to invite members of the planning board to make a presentation this month. The Friends of Squibnocket are due to make their final proposal on Sept. 16.