Early summer fog blew across the moors at Wasque Reservation last Saturday morning, a soft blanket of dampness settling over tiny, salt-blasted wildflowers. All was quiet. A short distance away was the place where fishermen once stood famously shoulder to shoulder, casting deep into the rip tides for blues.
But few fishermen come to this spot anymore. What was once a wide sandy beach is now a sheer cliff in a land that has been under assault by a relentless ocean for the past six years. In the middle of this dramatically changing, largely unbuilt landscape sits the sprawling summer home owned by Richard and Jennifer Schifter. When the home was completed about six years ago, it stood some two hundred and twenty feet from the edge of the bluff. By this winter the edge of the cliff was suddenly less than fifty feet away from the house and getting nearer by the day. Some coastal engineers call the erosion unprecedented. Others say there is plenty of precedent for the coastal changes taking place. Whatever the viewpoint, all agree that Wasque and Norton Point are a living laboratory of coastal change, and the area is now the subject of intense study by preeminent marine scientists in Woods Hole.
Against this backdrop, over the winter a plan of action was devised for the Schifter home which was in imminent danger.
After months of preparatory work, the central step in that plan was under way last weekend. A group of highly-specialized construction workers from Maryland and New York, who have been camped out on Chappaquiddick since March, quietly and efficiently executed the spectacular feat of moving an eight thousand-square-foot house nearly three hundred feet through a deep trench in the sand to a new location where it will be resettled. Remarkably, the foundation of the house is still intact. There are many remarkable things about this project, which has been a source of widespread fascination across the Island and beyond.
The Schifters understandably never wanted their house to become a public spectacle. But given the scale of the project, set on tiny Chappy, and the growing concern about coastal erosion on the Vineyard, a concern confirmed by the Gazette Harris-Interactive Poll released last week, a public spectacle was unavoidable.
Critics and Monday-morning quarterbacks have questioned the wisdom of building a super-sized house at such a vulnerable location in the first place. It is hard for many to fathom the cost of a relocation project which may only forestall the inevitable. And though we are sure the Schifters will carefully restore the land they have bulldozed to accommodate the move, photographs showing the scope of the construction site are breathtaking.
But there is much to be learned from this privately-funded project, and the Schifters deserve credit, not vilification for tackling their problem before it got worse. Faced with several bad options, the Schifters did not wait for their house to fall into the sea, which would have caused an environmental disaster of incalculable proportions and public expense. The ocean is not going to stop chipping away at the Vineyard’s coastline, and what the Schifters are doing today on their own dime offers a window into what it will take for the Island to cope with coastal erosion issues in the years to come.
That the Schifters would want to preserve a cherished family home on an extraordinary perch shouldn’t be hard for anyone to understand, even if its size and the cost of saving it are beyond most means and imaginations.
It will be many weeks and months before this project is completed and there will be many more issues for the town and the Schifters to address, including ongoing environmental concerns around the temporary use of coir log envelopes to contain the rapidly eroding bluffs at Wasque. That so-called soft armoring will need to end once the house is rebuilt.
And then there is the ultimate question: has the house been moved far enough? Only time will tell. The project is a valuable case study for the Vineyard.