A meeting at Oak Bluffs town hall on Wednesday was as much about a plan to mend the crumbling town waterfront as it was to mend frayed relations between certain town officials who disagree over what approach should be taken after a 30-ton retaining wall along Sea View avenue suddenly collapsed nearly a month ago.
This week’s meeting, called by town administrator Michael Dutton, was more contentious then a similar meeting called two weeks ago to discuss a plan to repair the retaining wall and to shore up a stretch of crumbling town waterfront along what is commonly called pay beach. Over the past week, some members of the Boardwalk to Beach task force, a group created last year to develop a plan to improve the town waterfront, have publicly complained about being excluded from plans to repair the retaining wall and pay beach.
The Boardwalk to Beach group helped draft a 35-page report entitled the Sea View Revitalization Concept Master Plan, which recommends a wide range of improvements including the installation of new railing along the beach, new walkways down to the shoreline, a new viewing pagoda opposite Samoset avenue, and new light fixtures and recycling bins. The total cost is estimated at $2.7 million.
An integral part of the task force’s plan is to improve the old snack shack at the foot of the town beach, adjacent to where the retaining wall collapsed. Although officials have not settled on one particular plan, there have been discussions about building out the beach by creating a gently sloping dune that would likely require the snack shack to be removed.
At a selectmen’s meeting last week, Nancy Phillips, co-chairman of Boardwalk to Beach group, accused the conservation commission of keeping information from the task force and expressed concerns that town leaders have already settled on a plan that would permanently preclude any new structures from ever being built along the beach.
At the start of this week’s meeting, conservation commission member John Breckenridge read a written statement that both addressed the concerns raised by members of the Boardwalk to Beach task force and explained that town officials have yet to ratify a permanent solution to the pay beach problem.
“We have been respectful of the hard work, energy and enthusiasm of the beach task force and their master plan and feel that many of our solutions will be found to be in unison with their goals,” he said.
Mr. Breckenridge said the conservation commission has merely endorsed temporary plans for the emergency repair of the waterfront, the key component being the use of gabion baskets. These baskets would be filled with earth and sand and help fortify the bank against erosion, he said.
The tentative plans call for the creation of a gradually sloping bank at an angle of two to one (two feet long for every one foot high) anchored by gabion baskets and concrete rubble fill that would then be covered with sand. The whole area would then be fortified by planting vegetation, which would help to create a natural coastal dune system, he said.
Mr. Breckenridge emphasized that emergency repairs are necessary to shore up the coastal bank and prevent the remaining seawall from collapsing — perhaps taking a portion of the sidewalk and Seaview avenue above with it. In recent weeks, town officials have described the unstable waterfront as a crisis.
“Our paramount concern has been the promotion of public safety, the protection of Sea View avenue and the protection of the coastal bank,” he said.
Mr. Breckenridge also noted that the conservation commission must abide by the regulations of several state entities such as Coastal Zone Management, the Division of Conservation and Recreation and the Department of Environmental Protection.
Coastal Zone Management regulations, he noted, prohibit the construction of new static systems such as seawalls, endorsing instead what are called soft solutions — the creation of a gently sloping coastal banks that provide sand and re-nourish beaches.
“Non-structural measures are considered viable alternatives to protect coastal banks with the added benefit of maintaining recreation beaches,” Mr. Breckenridge said.
Conservation commissioner and coastal engineer Caleb Nicholson offered a more blunt assessment.
“People need to start to understand that without this dune effect we can expect to see continued destabilization of the waterfront and the retaining wall. We’re going to lose Sea View avenue,” he said.
Mr. Nicholson also said rebuilding a new vertical wall would be highly impractical.
“We would have to dig out a footing below the frost line while pumping out the area below sea level. And at the same time, we would have to stabilize the bank while we work on the retaining wall. The cost of rebuilding that wall doesn’t make sense,” he said.
Richard Westcott, an engineer and member of the Boardwalk to Beach task force, then offered an alternative plan that calls for a sharply sloping block wall. He said the blocks have spaces in between to allow for the buildup of sand. He said the block wall could be constructed fairly quickly.
Mr. Westcott said his biggest fear is that officials might endorse a plan with a two-to-one angled slope, only to find out that it is not enough.
Ms. Phillips said she worried any plan that created a coastal dune system would automatically trigger state protection and rule out the construction of new structures along the beach in the future. “I want to know for sure this is not going to be known as a dune . . . because once it’s dune it may always be a dune,” she said.
But Mr. Dutton said the plan to use gabion baskets is only a temporary solution, and both the baskets and the sand can be removed later.
“Nobody is taking any long-term options off the table . . . right now we are just talking about a way to make sure that area is safe and can be reopened [in time for summer],” he said.
Selectman Roger Wey agreed. “Bottom line is, we need a temporary solution to make sure that beach is open by this summer . . . we need to think about safety and we need to think about the town economy. We have plenty of time for public hearings for a long-term solution afterwards,” he said.
The community preservation committee this week also voted to move $72,000 out of the town open space account to be used for the necessary repair. Various state agencies, including MassHighway and the department of conservation and recreation, are also expected to help pay for the repairs.