A preliminary report on the Oak Bluffs waterfront completed by an engineering firm hired by the town concludes that a large section of retaining wall near the snack shack along Sea View avenue is unstable and will almost certainly collapse sometime in the future.
The preliminary report from Marion-based CLE Engineering lays out several options to repair the crumbling waterfront, including a plan that would keep the building that houses the snack shack, bathrooms and changing stations.
But faced with evidence that a portion of the wall could collapse at any time, town officials in the coming days are expected to make a decision about the immediate and long-term future of the waterfront which could call for removal of the snack shack.
A special joint meeting between selectmen, the conservation commission and the parks commission is scheduled for today at 5 p.m. at town hall to discuss the findings and perhaps make a decision about the future of the waterfront. At that meeting, officials will review the final report and survey of the waterfront recently completed by CLE Engineering.
Officials have discussed plans for years to shore up the coastal bank and improve the overall condition of the town waterfront. Last year, a committee called the Boardwalk to Beach group drafted a 35-page report that recommended a wide range of improvements, including the installation of new railings, new walkways to the shoreline, and improvements to the old snack shack. The total cost was estimated at $2.7 million.
But the focus of the waterfront plans shifted dramatically in February when a 30-ton retaining wall holding up a steeply sloping bank along Sea View avenue collapsed, sending town officials scrambling to repair the area in time for the summer season while raising new questions about the structural integrity of the coastal bank.
Since that time, much discussion and some disagreement has ensued about plans for the waterfront. Some people feel the snack shack should be removed so the slope can be built out and reinforced, while others feel the snack shack can and should be preserved.
Joan Hughes, chairman of the conservation commission, said she was reluctant to give her opinion about the shack until the final report from CLE Engineering was reviewed. She did, however, note the preliminary report makes it clear the retaining wall behind the snack shack, and another portion of wall to the north, have failed and will inevitably collapse unless something is done.
Selectman Kerry Scott was more blunt in her assessment of the snack shack situation. She said if the final engineering report concludes that keeping the building would compromise efforts to protect the safety of beachgoers and preserve the beach, she supports getting rid of it.
“Everything I have learned since that wall came down in February tells me we cannot delay in restoring that bluff,” Ms. Scott said. “As elected officials we sometimes have to make the hard decision that is in the best interest of this town. And given a choice of saving a building with no historic value and making a sacrifice to protect our bluff and our beaches, then that choice is easy.”
Ms. Scott was recently appointed chairman of a new committee that will look at the waterfront and oversee temporary repairs and a more permanent solution down the road. She said the waterfront issue has more to do with just preserving the coastal bluff. There is also an issue of public safety.
“God forbid part of that wall collapses and someone gets hurt. We cannot forget that people’s safety must always be our number one priority,” she said.
The biggest proponent of keeping the snack shack has been Nancy Phillips, a newly elected member of the parks commission and former chairman of the Boardwalk to Beach work group. Although she could not be reached by phone this week, Ms. Phillips has said at a number of previous meetings the town should try to maximize its parks and recreational facilities and keep the comfort station and snack shack intact.
At the annual town meeting in April, many residents also expressed hope that the shack remain.
The review by CLE Engineering concludes that the coastal bank as now constituted will eventually collapse and take most of the retaining wall with it. The report notes that a part of the wall has already collapsed and the remaining structure is learning forward. There is also a crack from the top to bottom on one portion of the wall, while there is evidence a part of the sidewalk and road above have dipped several inches in some areas.
The preliminary engineering report recommends that a 2-to-1 slope be built down to the beach and that steel braces be installed against the back wall of the snack shack which abuts the retaining wall.
Earlier in the year, Mark Forest, chief of staff for U.S. Rep. William Delahunt, whose district includes the Vineyard, visited the Island and toured the damaged waterfront. During that meeting, Mr. Forest told a group of town officials the town stood a good chance of receiving federal transportation funding to repair the bluff because it supports Sea View avenue, which is a state highway.
The town has already received $200,000 from the state department of conservation and recreation, and officials are trying to secure additional funding to repair the waterfront. The question of whether to keep the snack shack may ultimately come down to funding. Most officials agree that any plan that calls for creating a 2-to-1 slope while also preserving the snack shack will almost certainly cost more.
“That snack shack does not represent Oak Bluffs, and at some point the elected leaders of this town may have to take a stand and decide that this is not a resource worth throwing money at anymore,” Ms. Scott said.
Richard Combra Jr., town highway superintendent and chairman of the parks commission, agreed.
“There isn’t a lot of extra cash floating around right now, so costs play big with me,” Mr. Combra said. “I have no problem keeping the snack shack, but if that means spending an additional $60,000 or $70,000 then we should consider whether it’s worth it.”
He added: “Remember voters [at town meeting] just voted not to spend $50,000 for lifeguards at the town beach, which goes directly to an issue of safety, so spending more than that on a snack shack is something voters may want to consider.”