Oak Bluffs selectmen on Friday unanimously approved the demolition and removal of the long-standing snack shack and comfort station at the foot of pay beach as part of a plan to repair the crumbling town waterfront along Sea View avenue.
At a special joint meeting with the conservation commission and parks commission, selectmen agreed to the recommendation laid out in a recently completed engineering report which calls for the building that houses the snack shack, bathrooms and changing stations to be eliminated.
With the building gone, new sand will be added to create a gently sloping coastal bank behind the building that will shore up the crumbling retaining that holds up a large portion of steeply sloping bank along Sea View avenue.
In February, an estimated 30-ton portion of the wall suddenly collapsed without warning, sending town officials scrambling to repair the wall in time for the busy summer season.
And after the preliminary report from Marion-based CLE Engineering concluded that a large section of the wall behind the snack shack and another portion to the north is unstable and in imminent danger of collapsing, selectmen on Friday agreed the best plan was to scrap the shack in order to save the slope.
“Our job as elected officials is to protect public safety,” chairman Ron DiOrio said. “I am approaching this as if it were an emergency situation, and we must take action immediately.”
A handful of officials and residents expressed reservations about getting rid of the snack shack. One was Nancy Phillips, a recently elected member of the parks commission, who argued that because of new federal flood regulations and directives from the Federal Emergency Management Association, it would be almost impossible to build a new snack shack once the current building is torn down.
“I worry about safety, too; but I also worry about the recreational facilities that building provides. I am not as married to that particular building as much as I am to the public services it provides. With these [new regulations], once we lose that building, we may lose it forever . . . and that is the only one of its kind on the Island,” Ms. Phillips said.
Richard Combra Jr., town highway superintendent and chairman of the parks commission, later said that the services provided by the snack shack and comfort station could be provided by portable facilities. The town may move in that direction.
Carlos Peña of CLE Engineering laid out three options at the start of the meeting for repairing the beach. One was to place steel bracing along the entire coastal bank and build a new timber stairway at the foot of pay beach at a cost of $176,000. A second option would be to build steel supports only around the snack shack at a cost of $121,000.
The third, and least costly option at $88,740, was to tear down the snack shack so that the coastal bank behind could be filled in with sand, the slope extended to a 2-to-1 ratio, and the timber stairway constructed.
In the end, selectmen endorsed a variation of the third option that left out plans for the new stairway. They agreed that since the repairs will serve as a short-term solution to a long-term problem, it was better to wait on the stairway until a more permanent solution is agreed upon.
The decision not to build the stairway could save the town $38,000.
Work on the waterfront is expected to start immediately. Selectmen have said the work will be done by a mix of town workers and hired contractors. Mr. Combra said yesterday the snack shack will likely be torn down this morning so sand can immediately be added to the coastal bank.
Mr. Combra also estimated it could take up to a month before work on the coastal bluff is completed. When this timetable was discussed on Friday, some meeting participants initially entertained the notion of simply roping off the area around the crumbling waterfront and revisiting the problem in the fall.
But others were opposed to taking no action.
“This issue is as much about the stability of the bank as it is the stability of the road above,” conservation agent Elizabeth Durkee said. “My concern is that if we do nothing the stability of the bank will only get worse [this summer].”
Selectman Kerry Scott said the collapse of the retaining wall in February happened suddenly and without warning, and noted it may prove difficult to keep people away from the snack shack and the portion of wall at risk of collapsing.
“Even it takes us until August to get [these repairs] done, that is preferable than doing nothing,” she said. “I think inaction will send the wrong message to our summer residents who look forward to visiting the beach every year. I think they would rather see us do something then nothing.”
Selectman Duncan Ross agreed.
“Safety is paramount,” he said. “Taking a year or two off while we figure out what to do is simply not an option. If we do that, we will need extra police to keep people away from that area.”
Ms. Phillips threw selectmen a curve ball when she argued the town beach is technically a park, which under state law places it under the jurisdiction of the parks commission. “I do believe we have the right to make this decision,” she said.
But Mr. DiOrio argued that in light of the pressing need for repairs and questions about public safety, the selectmen had the ultimate authority to authorize emergency repairs.
Towards the end of the meeting, Janice Rose, a longtime proprietor of the snack shack, argued that people have a sentimental attachment to the building. She said the shack attracts people from all around the world.
“There are people who live here who have been going their whole lives, and there are other people who come from just about everywhere to go to that beach and visit the snack stand,” she said. “I’ve met people from just about every country you can think of. I personally think getting rid of that shack is a mistake.”
But in the end the urgency of repairing the crumbling coastal bluff prevailed over people’s attachment to the building.
“I have gone down along the concrete wall and in some parts it is leaning forward as much as 4.5 inches . . . that wall is coming down at some point,” Mr. Peña said. “If it were perfectly straight and was not cracked in spots, I could support a decision to keep the wall, but that is not the case.”