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Scituate looks for answers to the rising sea

Retreat from a rising sea? Never, say many near it

Humarock summer resident Bob Brian supports seawalls, saying selling his waterfront home is not an option.

Jessica Bartlett for The Boston Globe

Humarock summer resident Bob Brian supports seawalls, saying selling his waterfront home is not an option.

As winter has turned to spring, Scituate’s waterfront is coming back to life. Town crews are sweeping the street of debris, storm shades are coming off sea-facing windows, and boulders displaced by the ocean are being maneuvered back into place.

Still, this past winter has left a lasting impression, and almost everyone agrees: If future winters are going to be like the last, something has to change.

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The question is what. While town officials are starting an all-encompassing overview of the issues, residents have balked over certain solutions and have their own list of priorities.

“We don’t know [how to approach climate change]. No one has done it before,” said Selectman Rick Murray, who is an earth and environment professor at Boston University. “There has to be an overarching architecture to it. We’re starting at a small level.”

That small level will begin alongside Marshfield and Duxbury, which are working with the state Office of Coastal Zone Management to outline areas that will become susceptible to flooding under climate-change predictions. The first public meeting of the three towns will take place in Scituate this Thursday.

Another option is taking place in Scituate alone, where officials are meeting in the Climate Change Working Group to sort through the issues.

These early discussions could have implications ranging from small (a change in coastal zoning) to huge — a calculated retreat from the sea.

The idea behind “managed retreat” is to buy coastal residents out of their properties, taking vulnerable homes away from the ever-rising sea rather than continually investing in infrastructure to protect them. It’s that most severe option that has some residents up in arms.

“I’d be defiant,” said Rosemary Dobie, who has lived year-round in her house on Central Avenue for 34 years.

Scituate has retreated from the ocean before. After the blizzard of ‘78, the number of houses on Peggotty Beach shrank to roughly a dozen from 40, many bought out by the federal government. More recently, Plum Island residents on the North Shore have been told that managed retreat is inevitable.

Scituate’s history is precisely what has Rosemary’s husband, Keith Dobie, skeptical of doing it again.

“When they did that in Scituate over at Peggotty, they stole those properties from those people. They muscled them and muscled them and muscled them until they could get them for nothing,” Keith said. “I was on the committee. It was a group to try to negotiate these prices, and I was the lone wolf that thought the town was being terribly unfair to those people.”

A better solution has to be at hand, Keith said, starting with treating Humarock as a developed area rather than a barren barrier beach. But more important, the town needs the right attitude in finding a fix.

“It isn’t [helpful if town officials] take a defeatist attitude. If it’s helpful, it’s good. If it’s ‘People live there and you shouldn’t, get the hell out,’ then it’s [not],” Keith said.

David Ball, president of the Scituate Historical Society and a Rebecca Road resident, also scoffed at retreating from the water. For him, the answer is investing in sea walls.

“These sea walls were built in the 1930s during the Depression. . . . It’s like building a road and walking away and in 80 years saying, ‘Why does it need work?’ ” Ball said. “It’s foolish. It’s past its designed lifetime. They need maintenance.”

Bob Brian, who lives on Concord Street in Humarock, also said sea walls are the solution, saying they help protect infrastructure beyond the wall.

Richard Harding, a member of the Conservation Commission and a year-round coastal resident in Humarock, agreed that retreat might not be the best solution. Not only would a buyout of high-risk properties be expensive, it would also take properties off the tax rolls.

In his opinion, raising houses and zoning changes might make more sense.

“There has to be some middle ground between what an individual resident would like to do, especially if they have waterfront property, and what the best interests are of the community and their neighbors,” Harding said.

It isn’t just the storms that might push coastal residents out. The cost of flood insurance, which is mandatory for residents who live in a flood plain, is ever increasing. According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, premiums are rising 5 to 25 percent, depending on when coastal homes were built, to accommodate the extra damage homes are receiving from storms.

But according to Humarock resident Leo Begin, coastal families simply adapt in the face of rough winters. You get a generator when the power goes out; you pick up the rocks that inevitably end up in your backyard; and every time a storm comes through, your resolve to stay strengthens just a little bit.

Leo noted that his neighbors aren’t overly concerned about the rising tides. Of the four houses that burned to the ground in March 2012, one is already being replaced by a massive structure.

Not to mention the scores of crews painting and fixing up coastal houses in early May. Despite the stress of the storms, the inevitable cleanup, and the added trouble and cost of getting insurance, renovation and rebuilding are the mantras of the moment.

Yet the ocean may soon dictate otherwise. According to Rob Thieler, a research geologist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, even the lowest estimates predict the average global sea level will rise by 0.2 meters (about eight inches) to 0.5 meters (about 20 inches) by 2100.

Higher estimates predict an increase of as much as 2 meters (6.6 feet) over the same period.

“Those rates are going to change the coast dramatically,” Thieler said. “The modern coast, as we know it, is [due to] a period of sea level rise stability. That is projected to change, and very likely to change.”

The common misconception is that “sea level rise” would occur as if in a bathtub, with just higher water. Yet according to Thieler, research has shown that an increase in bluff erosion, increases in storm overwash, and dramatic breaching of inlets are likely to occur alongside sea level rise, all of which could have larger environmental implications, such as changing the nature of currents.

Though 2100 may seem like a long way off, the ramping up to those levels, and the associated impacts such as coastal flooding, may start to occur sooner than predicted, Thieler said.

Thieler recommended a risk/tolerance approach, a method that basically pits the estimated longevity of planned infrastructure (and how tolerant governing agencies would be if that infrastrucutre failed) against predictions of a rising sea level. Things that are costly to build and have a long lifespan should be built to handle higher-end predictions of sea levels. Short-lived measures can be built for lower-level predictions.

Murray has that approach in mind as the town figures out where to start with the climate-change issue.

“The point of this small group is not to make any decisions but to purely brainstorm about a slew of different things we could then bring to selectmen, maybe come up with a committee [to develop] some ideas to bring to the town a year from now,” he said.

Managed retreat is only one of many suggestions, Murray emphasized, and would have to occur alongside several other responses.

The larger issue at hand is that Scituate cannot keep dealing with coastal problems after the fact. The town needs a plan.

“We have to start these discussions,” Murray said.

Jessica Bartlett can be reached at jessica.may.bartlett@gmail.com.
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