Posted by: coastlinesproject | July 30, 2013

Nantucket; proposed Sconset Bluff revetment.



July 24, 2013


“I’ve lived on Sconset all my life, never been to Nantucket though.”


Old time Sconset resident


In 2006 I took my family on a busman’s holiday to Nantucket Island. We stayed in a delightful little summer cottage only fifty feet from the beach. But it gradually dawned on me that my affinity for this place was the crux of the problem. People are drawn to the edge of the ocean; the closer to the mist and sounds of the crashing waves the better. But while this cottage was the first place you would want to rent, it was the last place you would want to own.


The cottage was in Codfish Park. A neat little community of fifty cottages nestled below Sconset Bluffs. On a beautiful summer day it seemed like the perfect place to buy. In fact the converted barn was for sale for close to a million dollars. Out of curiosity I called the broker, who extolled the virtues of the unique community.


But what she failed to mention was that in 1992, fifteen of these cottages had been swept away by the No Name Storm. The Weather Channel had filmed one of the cottages momentarily drifting in the tempestuous seas before a single waves exploded it into a thousand pieces of floating wood.


But by 2006 there were no empty lots, no evidence of loss, just a cluster of charming cottages only seconds from the ocean. A broker could be excused for not bringing up the past. The first time a new homeowner would hear about any kind of erosion was probably when a neighbor knocked on his door requesting that he cough up his $500,000 contribution to the community effort to pump offshore sand onto the beach, an operation that would have to be repeated every five to seven years. For without such renourishment, these cottages were but a single storm away from oblivion.


The history of Sconsett is revealing. Any surfer who has spent time looking for a new surf break can tell you that the beach changes every year. During the 1830’s ocean waves pounded directly at the toe of the bluff behind our cottage; our lot still part of the seafloor. Then, as so often happens on a high-energy beach, the locus of erosion changed and a broad expanse of sand grew below the bank.


The first people to take advantage of the situation were commercial fishermen who built simple shacks on the beach and fished there all summer while their families enjoyed the more cosmopolitan pleasures of the town of Nantucket still wealthy from the whaling industry.


Then, around the turn of the century, a celebrated group of Broadway stars developed an artist’s colony on the bluff. They hosted such luminaries as Rosalind Russell, Bette Davis, Truman Capote, and John Steinbeck. When Tallulah Bankhead was asked by what she thought of New England society as she was being escorted off the island after an all night Sconset party she is reported to have yelled back discreetly,  “You can take Prout’s Neck and shove it up Woods Hole.”


Robert Benchley was the stalwart on the bluff. He had started the round table at New York’s famous Algonquin Club, but on the island he was best known for soaking freshly caught bluefish in gin to sear off their fishy oily smells.


His son wrote a film about a Soviet submarine that threw the island into a tizzy after running aground on a Sconset bar, and his grandson wrote a film about a Great White Shark that throw the island into a tizzy after lunching on several of its inhabitants. Come to think about it The Russians are Coming, the Russians are Coming and Jaws are really just the same story with different antagonists.


The fun-loving “up-bank” artists spent every summer amusing themselves with tennis, musicals, and gambling in the Sconset Casino. Their servants, mostly black, settled into the former fishing shacks in the erosion-prone Codfish Park. Today a few of the “down-bank” cottages are still owned by the original black families, the rest by wealthy white summer folk.


Today the main topic of conversation on Sconset continues to be erosion. The 100-foot high cliffs still look out over the Atlantic Ocean and honeybees still sip sweet nectar out of the twenty-foot high privet hedges that hide the five million dollar homes on Baxter Road. The road used to lead to the Sankaty Head lighthouse. But the lighthouse is no longer there. It was moved off the rapidly eroding cliff in 2007. In fact, seven of the Baxter Road homes have been moved from the ocean side of the street to the inland side of the street which is now only 29 feet from the edge of the cliff.


The net worth of this single street is greater than several small Latin American countries combined. One homeowner sold his family owned cable TV system for close to $7 Billion dollars. He could certainly afford his portion of the proposed $25 million dollar revetment designed to slow the erosion of the clay filled Sconset cliffs.


The homeowners had tried several systems before, including bluff terracing, an expensive dewatering system and Geotubes. But they had all failed spectacularly leaving adjacent beaches covered with tons of terracing boards, pipes and unsightly Geotube material. Town meeting had responded by passing a moratorium on building any further anti-erosion devices until the completion of a comprehensive beach management plan or the end of August 2013 whichever came first.


But the winter storms of 2112-2013 changed the dynamics of the situation.  Thirty feet of the top of the cliff had cascaded into the Atlantic Ocean and now most of the multi-million dollar homes and the street with its water and sewer lines were only 29 feet from the edge. You didn’t need to be a rocket scientist to figure out the math. Another winter like the last one would see several hundred million dollars worth of homes and infrastructure cascading down into the Atlantic Ocean.


The Sconset Beach Preservation Fund responded by pushing for the $25 million dollar project to build an 18-foot high rock revetment designed to withstand a hundred year storm and a two-foot rise in sea level. The name of the homeowners’ organization was ironic. Like Galveston’s 1900 seawall built to almost the same dimensions, the Sconset revetment would cause the public beach to wash away eventually leaving homeowners in nearby Codfish park in imminent danger.


But the board of selectmen were also cognizant that they stood to lose up to $300 million dollars in tax revenues and that they were legally bound to provide water, sewer lines and access to the 17 houses at the end of Baxter Road. Unlike on Plum Island, however, the local Conservation commission and several environmental groups were opposed to the expensive project.


The initial cost of building the revetment was going to be $25 million dollars. It would require ocean barges to park in the waves while excavators offloaded 3 to 5 ton interlocking boulders and placed them along the toe of bank. But then the homeowners would have to dump 2,000 truckloads of sand every year for 20 years on the ends of the revetment to prevent downstream scour. When all was said and done every homeowner would have to pay close to a million dollars to build and maintain the seawall.


John Merson, one of the Baxter Road homeowners who had moved his house back a 100 feet from the edge was more than happy with his new location even without the commanding oceanfront view. And was damned if he was going to pay so his recalcitrant neighbors could continue to enjoy their expensive views.  At every public meeting, he kept asking the impertinent question, “At what point does it make more sense to relocate rather than keep paying for a rapidly eroding plot of ephemeral sand and clay?”




Bill Sargent is the director of the Coastlines Program established to help coastal communities deal with the effects of sea level rise.  He lives in Ipswich and is the author of several books about coastal erosion including, Beach Wars; 10,000 Years on a Barrier Beach and The View From Strawberry Hill; Reflections on the Hottest Year on Record, which has chapters on Plum island, Hurricane Sandy, and Salisbury Beach. The books are available in local bookstores and through and  Also see tabs at the top of this page.

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