The elaborate project now unfolding to move four buildings on Richard and Jennifer Schifter’s property on a remote and windswept promontory at the extreme southeastern corner of Chappaquiddick, including an eight-thousand-square-foot home, is riveting. This very big project for a very small island has already cost the homeowners millions of dollars as they engage in a spellbinding race against nature to move their summer home and assorted other structures back from the edge of a rapidly eroding cliff.
Unprecedented in scope and fraught with complicated logistics, the project will involve a small army of contractors, engineers and coastal geologists among others. Contractors Richard S. Knight Jr. and his partner Michael Zadeh will have the unique experience of taking apart a house they built just a few years ago and putting it back together. Engineer George Sourati will help choreograph engineering aspects of the work by International Chimney, a Buffalo, N.Y., company that specializes in moving large structures like lighthouses and historic buildings.
For tiny Chappaquiddick, it’s all a little dazzling. And it is only just beginning; before any work can begin the Schifters still must clear a gauntlet of regulatory and environmental approvals with the town, including from the town planning board and conservation commission. Among other things the Schifters must demonstrate that the project can be completed with minimal harm to the environment.
The conservation commission has already allowed an expedited series of temporary emergency measures to stem the rapid erosion around the Schifter home while plans were developed for moving the house. The so-called soft solution has involved placing large natural fiber envelopes filled with sand against the eroding bank.
The Trustees of Reservations, which own hundreds of acres of unspoiled conservation land surrounding the Schifter property, have stated clearly that while they support the extraordinary measures underway to save the Schifter house, they will vigorously oppose any permanent armoring of the beach. This week the state Division of Marine Fisheries, which owns the Leland Beach, weighed in similarly.
Some have questioned the extraordinary amount of resources the Schifters are pouring into saving their summer home. The Schifters have literally and figuratively gone to the edge with their building project, but moving their house to land they have purchased is their choice and their money. It’s not hard to sympathize with their desire to preserve a place they equate with family and happiness.
At the same time, the Trustees and state are right to weigh on changes to the shoreline. Permanent beach armoring, hard, soft or otherwise has no place at Wasque, where the wild and rare dynamic coastal environment should be allowed to exist unfettered by manmade structures on the beach.
The Schifters are putting a lot of chips on the table in this bet against nature. At the very least, it will be a fascinating process to watch and a test case for dealing with a problem that will affect more coastal homeowners in the years ahead as sea levels rise. Whether it is advisable and how it turns out will be a subject for debate for no doubt many years to come.
Meanwhile, town conservation leaders have a vital role to play in careful government oversight and vigilant scrutiny of a project that could have both short and long-term implications for the environment. Balancing personal property rights with good stewardship of public land is of vital importance to Chappaquiddick, and indeed all of the Vineyard.