The Martha’s Vineyard Commission on Thursday voted unanimously to approve the North Bluff restoration project in Oak Bluffs, which has drawn heavy scrutiny from the public this fall and winter.

The plan includes a 720-foot metal seawall between Oak Bluffs harbor and the Steamship Authority, fronted by a stone revetment. A timber walkway would run along the top of the wall, between the harbor and the new fishing pier north of the ferry dock. The existing concrete seawall, which has deteriorated, will remain in place behind the new wall.

Conditions that accompany the project will require final lighting and landscaping plans, and that the project be built and maintained as presented.

Thursday’s meeting concluded the commission’s review of the project as a development of regional impact (DRI), which began in December. Some have argued that the project came to the MVC too late in the process, without having enough public comment to begin with.

A large number of letters submitted during the DRI review raised concerns about the appearance of the new wall, details of the proposal, and the planning process itself. Further comment was gathered at a three-hour public hearing on Dec. 11. Thursday’s meeting was also well attended but did not include public comment since the hearing had been closed.

Early in the week the commission’s land use planning subcommittee had unanimously recommended approval of the project, contingent on the town refining its lighting and landscaping plans.

A letter from project designer CLE engineering dated Dec. 28 answered several of the commission’s earlier questions. Among other things, it clarified that the new lampposts along the boardwalk would the same as those on the ferry dock, and that the benches, decking and railings would be the same as those on the pier.

The steel seawall is designed to last up to 50 years with annual maintenance costs expected to be around $7,500. The original concrete wall was built in the 1940s.

The town was awarded $2.3 million in federal funds to repair the wall after Hurricane Sandy in 2012, but the Federal Emergency Management Agency later decided the project did not qualify for the funds. In response, the town worked with CLE to develop a less expansive plan that included the metal seawall.

In September, FEMA again revised its decision, awarding $113,118 for the project. Funding will come primarily from two state grants totaling $5.6 million.

During discussion, commissioners were divided about whether the project would improve the appearance of the bluff.
“The feeling was that this was a definite benefit,” chairman Fred Hancock said of the view from the land. But Linda Sibley said the view from the water was a different story. “It’s a matter of opinion, but certainly many people feel it won’t be handsome,” she said.

Commissioner James Joyce believed it would improve the view, even from the water. “It’s going to be a nice, manicured, straight-looking wall,” he said. “As opposed to what I look at right now, which is all decayed.” He added that the new lighting would improve safety.

Mr. Hancock said he thought the project might indicate a coming trend as sea level rises. “All three of the down-Island towns are very close to the water,” he said.
In the end they agreed that the benefits of the project outweighed the detriments. Abe Seiman praised the plan as “practical and affordable,” and said it proved the necessity of the DRI process. The commission played a valuable role in allowing a more complete public airing of the project, he said. “If we didn’t exist, the town would have had no place to discuss the issue at all,” he said, adding that the process should be a wakeup call for the town of Oak Bluffs to participate more fully in town affairs.

In addition to the unanimous vote, commissioners voted to establish a memorandum of understanding with all Island towns so that town projects reviewed as DRIs would go through a public process before coming to the commission.

The land use planning committee had discussed placing a deadline on the beach restoration, but that was not among the final conditions on Thursday.

Town administrator Robert Whritenour thanked the MVC for its approval and said he was working with other town officials to address the issue of beach nourishment in general, and to organize a public forum on the topic as it relates to the North Bluff.

“We hope that by the time we come back and discuss issues with [the MVC] such as lighting, landscaping and other issues, that we have a much stronger partnership with members of the community in terms of understanding and working together,” he said.

The next step for the project is to gain final approval from the town conservation commission. Engineers expect the project will be mostly completed by June 30, the deadline for using the state grant money.