While elaborate plans continue to unfold for moving a large Chappaquiddick house, the Edgartown conservation commission is grappling with a new issue: whether actions taken to stem the erosion threatening the house can continue after the house is moved.
For months, the situation at Wasque Point where a rapidly eroding coastal bluff is swiftly approaching an 8,800-square-foot house has captivated the Island. Plans are underway to move the home and surrounding buildings on the property, owned by Richard and Jennifer Schifter.
The Schifters bought part of a neighboring property, and the plan now calls for moving four buildings, beginning with an existing home on the adjacent property that will be moved elsewhere on the same property. Then the Schifter main home, guest house, garage and pool will be moved farther back from the bluff.
In September the town conservation commission approved emergency actions to try to stem the erosion, which was called unprecedented and said to be continuing at an alarming rate of .87 feet a day. At the time 100 feet remained between the edge of the cliff and a stone pool enclosure. A coconut fiber coir log system was installed but proved ineffective. Then coir envelopes (coconut fiber filled with sand, folded and stacked) were installed in their place.
The Schifters want to keep the coir envelope system in place on a semi-permanent basis for three years, conservation agent Jane Varkonda said Thursday. The conservation commission will continue to discuss that request, as well as an extension of the emergency permit to keep the coir logs in place through the house move, at a Jan. 30 meeting.
But at the conservation commission meeting this week, the Martha’s Vineyard superintendent for The Trustees of Reservations, which owns most of the surrounding land at Wasque Reservation, said the Trustees are firmly opposed to a permanent coir log system.
“Our position has been that we certainly did not and will not oppose this project, so it gives Rick and Jenny time to move their house. But once the house is moved, that’s really . . . the end of our overall support for this project,” superintendent Chris Kennedy told the commission on Wednesday night. Mr. Kennedy said the Trustees are against “any long-term armoring system, whether it’s three years, six years, indefinitely, forever. Our belief is these systems inherently do not work in the long run.”
In a Jan. 8 letter to the commission, Trustees president Barbara Erickson made her organization’s position clear. “Our understanding for the use of temporary armament should not presume our comfort with a permanent revetment that may negatively impact our neighboring property, Wasque,” she wrote in part.
Mr. Kennedy elaborated further. “Our belief is the system really should be removed once the house is moved, and allow the natural system to get back to what it’s going to do. It certainly is going to erode, there’s no question about that,” he said, noting that the man-made solution buys time. “But beyond that . . . we would like to see the system go back to the natural system.”
He said the Trustees have found coir materials from the installation on other Chappaquiddick beaches, as far north as above the Dike Bridge and also on Leland Beach and at Norton Point. “It’s inevitable that there will be cleanup ongoing,” he said, noting he’s seen the coir material and the earlier coir logs wash up. The Trustees clean them up, he said, and noted he would be sending the invoices for the cleanup, which is paid for from a maintenance escrow account funded by the Schifters.
Mr. Kennedy’s main concern with the logs remaining on the beach was that they would attract skunks. “It’s ideal skunk habitat for dens,” Mr. Kennedy said. Skunks are predators for nesting shorebirds, which occur in large numbers at Wasque, some of them rare.
George Sourati, an engineer for the Schifter project, and coastal geologist W. Sterling Wall went over plans to move the structures, showing commissioners their plans on a map. Moving plans have yet to be filed with the planning board and the conservation commission.
For now, the conservation commission requested a detailed maintenance plan for the coir logs after the house would be moved, a monitoring plan and a mitigation plan.
“When the house is moved we’ll need a plan for how this whole armoring system is going to be removed or disengaged or abandoned . . . or whatever your plan is for how you’re going to do this,” said commissioner Jeff Carlson. The conservation commission has hired its own independent consultant, the Woods Hole Group, to study the coir envelopes. In a letter to the commission, coastal geologist Leslie Fields outlined comments following a site visit.
“There is really no evidence that the existing coir envelope system is having an adverse impact on adjacent resources,” she wrote, later adding: “There may be some very localized end-effect erosion of the bank at the eastern end of the system; however, it is difficult to determine if the erosion is due to construction activities or wave reflection off the system.” She said the erosion was currently contained on the Schifter property.
The notes further said the natural erosion processes are dominant and the performance of the coir envelope system has yet to be proven either short or long-term, though portions of the system have already started to fail. She recommended continuing to monitor the system, requesting more details about how the applicant would maintain the system going forward.
“I know the commission is worried about setting precedent on this project and they are right to be sensitive to this matter. However, I do feel that this site is extremely unique, and it would be possible to draft an [order of conditions] approving this project (even after the house has been moved) that would protect the commission from setting a precedent,” the consultant wrote.
Commissioners grappled with the issue.
Mr. Carlson said, with concerns from abutters, “we want to see what will happen with the house move and that will dictate the length of the maintenance plan . . . this is an emergency, this has always been an emergency permit to save Mr. Schifter’s house. We’re working with that premise; once the house is moved the emergency is gone.” He said the commission needed to see the plans to move the house before looking at any long-term plans. “We just want to leave it open . . . we all understand it’s really a dynamic situation, but we need to have all of this information in front of us before we make any kind of decision, especially a long-term decision.”
Commissioner Christina Brown indicated the board might be reluctant to approve a long-term maintenance solution. “If you want to make a proposal for maintenance after the house move, I think you’ve heard concerns and reluctance,” she noted.
Commissioner Stuart Lollis said it might depend on whether there were adverse affects from the coir envelopes, and cited continuing concern for the property.
“It seems to me this house here is in danger because this is eroding,” he said, gesturing to a map of the property. “And if this house is moved here, it’s still in the line of fire, it’s still in danger. While this is an emergency, it’s not a passing emergency . . . it never stops, it’s an emergency that continues.
“Hence the reason the applicant’s requesting some kind of assurance that all of this won’t be for naught. It seems reasonable. If we say we’re going to wait until after the house is moved, the applicant is going to spend a hell of a lot of money and then [we’ll] pull the rug out from under him.”
But Mr. Carlson pointed out things might change over the coming months. “Let’s save this house and then go forward from there,” he said, adding that he didn’t think it would matter if they waited. “Mother Nature might make some changes between now and then, but I don’t think anything we do makes any difference and so I think we should sit on it and wait. I don’t think it’s further jeopardizing his property or his long-term plan.”
The commission agreed to continue the matter to Jan. 30. The emergency certification allowing the coir envelopes expires on Feb. 23. Ms. Varkonda noted that the commission could extend the order through when the house is moved, and later amend it to include long-term plans.
“I think everyone agrees that the worst thing that can happen would be for any of that structure to end up down on the beach,” Mr. Kennedy said at the end of the discussion. “We all want to avoid that.”