As drastic erosion continues to eat away at Chilmark’s south shore, town officials this week expressed grave concern for public safety and impeded access to Lucy Vincent and Squibnocket beaches. The Chilmark board of selectmen also approved a study for the extreme Upper Chilmark Pond, known as Upper Upper Chilmark Pond to some, for a possible dune restoration project.

lucy vincent
The cliff is coming down, says beach committee member Kristin Maloney. — Albert Fischer

The study will be done by the Woods Hole Group, an independent environmental and engineering firm, and is intended to preserve the barrier between the pond and Lucy Vincent beach. Two geologists from the group visited the beaches this spring and were surprised at the intensity of the erosion.

“They expressed definite visual concern on the aggressive wave action on a regular day,” committee chairman Pam Bunker said. She said they compared the pounding of the waves to storms on the Outer Banks in North Carolina. The beach committee looked to the group for a proposal “to see if there was anything [the town] could do to build up the dunes to be able to save the beach as well as to continue trying to keep the health of the ponds,” Ms. Bunker said, concluding, “we’re losing our beach.”

The $3,000 study of the extreme Upper Chilmark Pond will be funded with $1,500 from a special town meeting warrant approved last September and $1,500 from the private Chilmark Pond Association.

Public safety issues around the cliff at Lucy Vincent are also more severe than in previous years.

“The cliff is coming down, people are still trying to get around it but the cave is now a real concern,” beach committee member Kristin Maloney said. “People are going in there and sleeping and reading. There’s a huge fissure, it’s coming down.”

Ms. Maloney said every time the committee attempts to put up fencing or a sign, “the waves just take it out.”

The Woods Hole Group is charged with developing the “least aggressive” plan for the dunes and cost estimates for such a plan. The plan would then be returned to voters for approval.

Attempts to keep people out of the crumbling cave have been unsuccessful. — Albert Fischer

Ms. Maloney recognized that the new dunes would be a temporary solution to “buy a little bit of time.”

“Nobody thinks it’s going to be a longterm solution, the ocean is coming up,” she said. “It may keep the public beach open for another couple of years.”

Questions about permitting through the state Department of Environmental Protection still surround the project, including approval and cost estimates, Ms. Maloney added.

Pond association president Joan Malkin said the beach committee and association “want a strategy that’s reasonably achievable in terms of cost and regulatory approval.”

“We also want to make sure [the Woods Hole Group] doesn’t give us any wild alternative strategies because it’s not going to be sellable to any of our constituents,” she said.

Some of the more “alternative strategies” suggested included building a cement wall in the ocean off the beach and sinking empty subway cars into the water to “slow down the wave action” and build up a reef.

Pond association member Steve Lewenberg said the association voted dune reclamation as “one of the key points we wanted to accomplish for the health of the pond” at their annual meeting in the spring. If the plan was approved by voters, Mr. Lewenberg said, “there is a very good chance the pond association will want to contribute to that effort.”

Squibnocket Beach is also a concern, Ms. Maloney said.

“We have no beach there,” she said. “People are getting refunds for their stickers because there’s no beach.”

Ms. Bunker said the revetment wall installed to help slow down erosion may actually be facilitating it.

“When the geologists were here they were shocked that a revetment of just vertical mats was built versus a gradual revetment, because in actuality what we had built is speeding up the process of erosion and eating up the sides,” Ms. Bunker said.

Many beachgoers have started using either the left or right side of the beach, both private beaches. The town leases a portion of the beach for public access from the Squibnocket Homeowners Association.

Beach committee member Clarissa Allen said the erosion “has never been to this extent” and the town-leased parcel “doesn’t really exist anymore as a place where people can park their towels and swim.”

Ms. Allen said the town doesn’t have a beach at Squibnocket anymore, but “a parking lot that’s going to be a parking lot projecting out into the water. It’s on its way to becoming a strange little jetty out there with water on either side of it in another 15 years.”

Selectman Warren Doty said public access to the beach must be preserved.

“Both sides of the Squibnocket parking lot have been in public use for many, many years, and even though we don’t own these sections I feel it’s very important to maintain public ability to use those sections,” Mr. Doty said. “The town would be willing to do whatever necessary to continue to use those sections.”

Selectman and chairman of the board Jonathan Mayhew said taking down the revetment is “an option that needs to be considered.”