With storm season on the way and East Chop Drive in a compromised state, the town of Oak Bluffs is considering whether to close the scenic roadway.
At a meeting nearly two weeks ago, the East Chop Association voted to recommend that the road be closed between Brewster and Munroe avenues until the bluff is repaired. On Thursday the issue was before the Oak Bluffs roads and byways committee.
While two members of the committee were prepared to recommend a winter closure of the road, in the end the committee decided to take several options to the town selectmen for a decision. Options on the table include closing the road to traffic both ways or limiting the road to one-way traffic, possibly moving part of the road further inland around Lincoln Park, and discussing with the Martha’s Vineyard Commission ways to mitigate traffic that would be pushed into side streets, a concern for several East Chop residents.
After Hurricane Sandy in October, the road was restricted to one-way traffic between Brewster and Munroe because of vertical slumping, which means the bluff was destabilized at the bottom, so the top slumped down. After a severe February snowstorm, the road was shut to all traffic for a few weeks. In June the town decided to reopen the road to traffic for the summer months, chiefly because of concerns that East Chop Drive traffic would be pushed into side streets that are full of children and pedestrians.
Concern about the bluff, which is owned by the East Chop Association, and East Chop Drive, which is owned by the town, dates back for years. After Hurricane Bob in 1991, the road was closed for more than two years. It was reopened after the bottom of the bluff was stabilized.
“We’re getting into the high storm season and there has been a lot of talk about what we ought to do to protect the bluff,” selectman and roads and byways committee member Walter Vail told a crowd of about 60 people, mostly East Chop residents, at Thursday’s meeting. He noted that the East Chop repairs have yet to be approved for funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and if funds do come through, the repairs could take several months.
“There’s no easy fix on this, I’ve got to tell you, and it’s certainly not comfortable,” said Mr. Vail, who is also an East Chop resident. He said the decision to reopen the road for the summer was difficult, but concern for added traffic on roads trumped concern for the bluff.
“It was the question of the bluff or lives,” Mr. Vail said.
“Just by the number of people here today you can see the significant impact on these people,” East Chop Association president Craig Dripps said. He said the 16-member board for the association voted unanimously at a recent meeting that the road should be closed completely until the bluff is repaired and stabilized. A discussion with the entire association resulted in no dissent against the decision, Mr. Dripps said.
“I got the feeling that we as a community are willing to make that sacrifice, I think, to make a clear message to people that this is a very serious situation,” he said. Mr. Dripps also said it is hard to ask FEMA for money when the road is open to traffic.
Some committee members and a few members of the audience questioned the severity of safety concerns for the road. One person spoke against any closure, saying that if the road was open in the summer there should be no problem leaving it open during the winter months.
Town conservation agent Elizabeth Durkee read an email from engineer Carlos Pena stating that a storm or “loading condition” along the roadway “could cause failure of the coastal bank and by extension the collapse of the roadway.”
Mrs. Durkee noted that the town applied Thursday for a $4 million grant from the state office of environmental affairs for repairs to East Chop bluff.
Several East Chop residents said they had concerns about how the closure would impact the side streets, particularly on Brewster and Munroe avenues, where traffic would be diverted. Others suggested creating a drop-off location for packages so delivery trucks do not have to go down the road. Several people suggested diverting traffic on other streets, or adding speed bumps to impacted streets. Some wanted to know how emergency vehicles would get to East Chop Drive homes in the event of a road closure, an issue that has not yet been addressed. The committee also discussed relocating part of the road by moving it further inland in the Lincoln Park area. Highway superintendent Richard Combra Jr., who is also a member of the roads and byways committee, said the road-moving project would cost $5,000 to $10,000. That option will also be brought to the selectmen at their Sept. 24 meeting.
Planning board chairman and committee member John Bradford made a motion to close the road to all traffic during the winter while investigating other options, and Mr. Vail concurred. But others said they would rather take options to selectmen, and said they believe that with no imminent storms, the town has time. In the event of a severe storm before the Sept. 24 meeting, committee members said the emergency response team would address concerns.
Regardless, “I think it’s pretty clear that nobody wants to keep it open both ways, that’s not a safe route to go,” said selectman and committee chairman Michael Santoro.
“It’s not really a road that is a thoroughfare to a place that the general public needs to get to, it’s a scenic drive for a lot of folks,” Mr. Combra said.
“From my standpoint I don’t have any clue that says the town would have any objections but I can tell you that the rest of the Island is going to have big objections [to moving the road],” Mr. Vail said. “It’s a great scenic drive, probably the best one on the Island and I know we’re going to get push back from other towns if we close it one way or both ways.”