Plan to Refurbish Beach Stirs Emotion


Thomas Wirth unrolled a map mounted on two poles and planted them in the sand on Inkwell beach in Oak Bluffs last Thursday morning. Mr. Wirth, who worked as the landscape architect for the PBS programs This Old House and Victory Garden for 20 years, has drafted a design concept for this section of waterfront, in conjunction with the Oak Bluffs Boardwalk to Beach Task Force.

The 25-member task force includes a wide range of town officials, including members of the conservation commission, parks and recreation department, planning board, police department and selectmen.

More than 50 residents listened quietly, with the early morning traffic roaring by, as Mr. Wirth pointed to the aerial snapshot and summarized notes and drawings that he and the task force have made since last November. The plan envisions new railings, steps, lampposts, sidewalks, widened walkways and more bike racks and access points to the beaches.

Of the Ocean Park section, Mr. Wirth said, "Right now, that big bank full of asphalt is one of the worst things you can imagine. We're looking into ways of vegetating that. Right around there is where the bus stop is. I had a couple of cold waits there in December and March when I was taking the bus. It would be nice to have shelter, a spot for viewing."

Directly across from Pay Beach, which runs from Inkwell Beach to the Steamship Authority terminal, Mr. Wirth suggested installing portable facilities, such as concession stands, changing rooms, showers and restrooms, that could be wheeled in or dropped in seasonally. He also mentioned building a permanent transparent structure that a person could enter and then take steps down to the beach. "It would chronicle the fact that this is where the beach is," he said.

Mr. Wirth researched the architectural history of the district using old sepia photographs as his guide, and developed hybrid designs that would modernize yet retain the old Victorian style. Reactions in the crowd varied. One man, who later left the meeting, weaved his way to the front of the crowd and said, "Excuse me, sir. I like all of what you are saying, but primarily most of these people are here about the sand on this beach. That is what we want to hear about. That is what I want to hear about. All of these other things are nice, but we want some beach, some sand. We are losing the sand on this beach."

Task force representatives tried to intervene but the man raised his voice, "What is going to transpire with the sand?" Another person chimed in: "I want beach. I want some sand over here this week. All you need is some executive order."

Jo Ann Taylor, a coastal planner with the Martha's Vineyard Commission, replied: "What the gentleman has left out of the equation is the money. As most of you know, bringing sand is expensive."

Part of the sand loss comes from the road. Storm water washes the sand out, and to repair the current structure would be too expensive, Ms. Taylor explained. "The best thing is to bring more sand," she said. "It is a sacrificial thing because we know the sand is going to wash away. The way that we're going to get that money for the sand is through the predisaster mitigation plan which we have on draft. Anyone can look at it. Once approved, over the summer or in the fall, then the town and county and any other towns can apply for it. That grant round will come out probably in February, then the town can get money to get some sand here."

Nancy Phillips, co-chairman of the task force, added, "This is not a master plan that is going to sit on the shelf. We have the talent and the brains in Oak Bluffs to go for it. We're going to go for it this winter." Some members of the crowd sighed. Others shouted, "How do we know?"

Ms. Phillips answered: "You're going to have to take my word for it. I'm a volunteer busting my tail to do this. We all are. The fact that we have this meeting and a task force shows that we have the desire to do this."

Ms. Phillips asked residents to attend a July 24 meeting at Oak Bluffs Library to talk about the sand loss on Inkwell Beach. Meanwhile, she said anyone concerned about immediately addressing the sand problem should call or write to the parks department.

Town administrator Michael Dutton also said people should contact their state legislators. "It's an uphill struggle, a problem we've acknowledged for years. If we can get some legislative pressure on the DEP [Department of Environmental Protection], that would get direct action," Mr. Dutton said.

Mr. Wirth continued with the presentation. "I know if I had my way, I would have a truck backing up with sand here right now," he said.

He then discussed increasing the height of many of the railings to 42 inches, possibly adding mesh to protect climbers and kids. He said the task force wants to add a viewing deck and access to the beach for people with handicaps. It also wants to bury unsightly telephone wires and make sidewalks porous so that water will penetrate through. There has also been talk of building a fishing pier near the Steamship Authority wharf, which may be eligible for some kind of state funding if the town is willing to do basic maintenance. The SSA cannot build the pier because of homeland security restrictions.

When the presentation ended, Katherine Gaffey of Oak Bluffs said: "The task force has so many great ideas, but I believe overall people were looking for answers for this section of the beach and it was really Pay Beach that we got the information about."

Mr. Dutton said: "In my 10 years here, the issue of the beach and the sand has come up every year. We're trying to address the issue. We have a lot of stringent requirements placed on us by the state. We're going to the federal government for storm mitigation. I know, sand on the beach seems like the simplest thing in the world, but it's just not."

Mr. Wirth said he understands the frustration with the sand problem. He said he also hopes to design something Oak Bluffs residents can feel proud of. "You can always go off in a corner and make your own conclusions," he said, "but if you have people giving nice input, you can make sure you're serving the needs of the community and not just imposing something on them. I think the process has been brilliant, I really do."

He pulled out the wooden poles, rolled up the plans and dragged them through the sand to the road.