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Nantucket homeowners group agrees to remove their hotly contested erosion shield

A 2014 aerial view of Sconset Beach and Baxter Road area showing the bluffs with erosion along the eastern end of Nantucket.David L. Ryan/Globe staff/file

As the seas threatened to strip away the earth beneath their homes, a group of Nantucket homeowners mobilized to protect their land. Their solution: massive tubes made of plastic fiber and filled with hardening sand slurry, stretching across some 900 feet of beach to serve as a shield from the encroaching waters.

But the privately funded project, which the homeowners began to install 10 years ago, catalyzed a long and bitter rift as neighbors raised the alarm about its environmental impact elsewhere on the island.

Now, the homeowners group from Siasconset, on the eastern end of Nantucket, has reluctantly agreed to dismantle the multimillion dollar project, seeing no way around a permit violation order calling for its removal. The move could bring an end to a heated, 10-year fight over how to grapple with climate threats on the island.

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In a Jan. 9 letter to Nantucket’s town manager and Select Board, Josh Posner, president of the homeowners group, the Siasconset Beach Preservation Fund, wrote that his organization will remove the geotubes in compliance with a 2021 order from Nantucket’s Conservation Commission — “no matter how foolish removal may be.”

In 2014, homeowner Josh Posner sat on his bench that he has moved at times from the bluff on Baxter Road which has been eroding away. David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Posner proposed the town abandon its heavily criticized plan to partner with his group to expand the project. Nantucket’s Select Board agreed, and the conservation commission unanimously approved the withdrawal at a Thursday evening meeting.

“It is a shame to see a lack of political leadership and the domination of unthinking ideologues force the destruction of a beautiful, historic community when there is way of protecting it that is working really well,” Posner told The Boston Globe in an e-mail.

Posner’s characterization of the removal order as “foolish” was “very unfortunate,” said Ashley Erisman, chair of the conservation commission, which found the homeowners failed to abide by permit obligations, including a requirement to replenish the area with clean sand.

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”We wouldn’t have needed to issue a removal enforcement had [Siasconset Beach Preservation Fund] followed their order of conditions,” she said.

Siasconset, more commonly known as Sconset, is home to iconic shingled cottages, some worth millions of dollars apiece. But the bluff on which they are built has long been under assault by erosion, which has accelerated due to climate change.

In response, some have had their homes shifted away from the water or even onto other parts of the island, which can sometimes cost more than the houses themselves. The Siasconset Beach Preservation Fund has tried other tactics, including pumping sand from the ocean bed to extend the beach under their homes, with limited success.

It landed on the more ambitious geotubes plan and began installing them in December 2013.

The construction of the geotube project on 'Sconset Beach in Nantucket. Sharon Van Lieu

The project immediately sparked an outcry. The mainly wealthy Sconset residents asserted the geotubes were protecting them from being swallowed by the sea. But environmentalists, less well-off neighbors, and some officials roundly criticized the project, saying it could impede the beach’s natural erosion processes, threaten local marine life, and burn through a limited supply of sand needed for replenishment.

“We do not believe that wealth buys the right to harm our unique heritage of open beaches and yearly changes in response to natural forces,” Nantucket resident Toby Sackton wrote in a 2014 letter to Nantucket’s town manager opposing the project.

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Another concern: the project would worsen erosion elsewhere on the island. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, structures that physically block waves can do so by saving the land behind them but causing sand elsewhere to wash away. Critics say they have evidence of this phenomenon on Nantucket.

“We do believe, based on extensive review of the data by our coastal engineer experts and others, that the existing geotubes have already had clear and detrimental impacts to the adjacent beach, coastal bank, and downdraft resource areas,” said Emily Molden, executive director of the nonprofit Nantucket Land Council, which has long expressed concerns about the project.

Posner contests these concerns.

“Extensive scientific monitoring is done by leading environmental firms on a quarterly basis and shows that there has been no harm to neighboring beaches,” he wrote in an e-mail.

The project engendered years of controversial hearings and lawsuits. Then, in 2021, the conservation commission — responsible for upholding wetlands protection laws — ordered its removal, saying the Siasconset Beach Preservation Fund failed to consistently dump $2 million of clean sand over the geotubes annually to replenish the area, and meet other permit obligations. The homeowners, who say the project doesn’t require that much sand, appealed, but lost the case in the Nantucket Superior Court in September.

Despite the pending removal order, this past November, the homeowners group and Select Board — which had entered into a highly contested partnership months earlier — put forth a draft notice of intent to extend the installation to more than 4,000 feet, a plan abandoned this month.

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Posner says the project was always intended to be a pilot. Now, it’s financially unsustainable unless it can be expanded. Ninety percent of ongoing funding for the geotubes, he said, comes from 15 to 20 households that are not currently protected by the installation, but would be if the expansion was approved.

He said the Select Board, which appoints the conservation commission, hasn’t provided the “leadership” the project needs. “For reasons of local politics they keep re-appointing commissioners who refuse to follow the law and instead follow their own personal bias — thou shalt not mess with Mother Nature,” he said.

In his letter last week, Posner still urged officials to temporarily take over the operation of the geotubes, to give his organization a chance to work with officials to find another option. But if officials call for removal, he said the group will comply.

The conservation commission has not yet worked out the details of a removal process. At Thursday’s meeting, a consultant for the homeowners group laid out three possible plans on which commissioners could vote at another meeting on Feb. 16. The commission has also yet to decide when removal will begin. But it’s all but certain that the project’s days are numbered.

“Pending either a new application from a different entity or a new application from SBPF to deal with this and bring the structure back into compliance, the only real path available is to continue with the previous order,” said Jeff Carlson, who directs Nantucket’s Natural Resources Department. He noted the homeowners group has provided funds for removal.

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That “by no means” will mean Nantucket will ignore the threat of climate change-fueled erosion, Carlson said.

The town is “actively pursuing” a plan to relocate the embattled Sconset strip away from the eroding bluff, he said. A third-party consultant for Nantucket last year recommended officials wait to remove the geotubes until the town is ready to relocate the homes.

It’s not only Sconset that’s threatened by the seas. A 2021 coastal resilience plan found that by 2070, flooding and erosion could cause damage worth $3.4 billion in Nantucket. Officials are considering measures such as erecting flood barriers, improving road infrastructure, and installing rain gardens.

Officials estimate the endeavors will cost more than $2 billion, said Carlson. Though it’s urgent to get started, he said it’s important to go through a democratic process.

“I think it’s super important to bring in some sort of community consensus,” he said.

This story has been updated to reflect that Nantucket’s 2021 coastal resilience plan found that flooding and erosion could cause damage worth $3.4 billion by 2070.


Dharna Noor can be reached at dharna.noor@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @dharnanoor.