NANTUCKET — Fierce storms and rising tides have ravaged the bluff beneath a row of cedar shingle estates and cottages, swallowing some of the region’s most valuable real estate and edging the homes ever closer to the sea.
To preserve their otherwise placid perch above the Atlantic, a dozen homeowners have spent millions of dollars moving their old homes back on their lots. Others have moved elsewhere on the island as the ocean has advanced hundreds of feet.
With several homes now only a few feet from the precipice, the Siasconset Beach homeowners last winter took emergency action: spending about $3 million to install a series of massive tubes along 850 feet of the beach. The controversial project, which they want to extend an additional 3,000 feet, has sparked a bitter rift between neighboring villages, a legal battle over wetlands law, and the intervention of state authorities.
Neighbors along the island’s east coast and local environmental groups argue that the homeowners are seeking to preserve their land at the expense of nearby beaches.
They call the effort “Nantucket’s Big Dig,” contending it will impede the bluff’s natural erosion that spreads sand around the island and trigger irrevocable changes to the island’s landscape.
“If we stop the natural erosion, Great Point and beaches to the north and south will disappear,” said Cormac Collier, executive director of the Nantucket Land Council, a private conservation group fighting the project. “We think the entire topography of Nantucket will change forever.”
The Siasconset Beach Preservation Fund, which represents about 50 homeowners above the bluff, has been searching for a solution for decades, as the bluff has eroded an average of about 3.5 feet a year.
“We believe it’s worth taking these measures to protect our historic community,” said Josh Posner, president of the Preservation Fund. “We don’t agree that it’s morally wrong to do something about sea level rise, or that we should just let erosion take its course.”
Some ideas they tried have failed, such as a system of pipes and pumps meant to lower the water table and build up the beach. Other efforts were either rejected by local voters or nixed by the Nantucket Conservation Commission, including dredging sand in fishing areas offshore.
After powerful storms in 2012 devoured as much as 30 feet of the bluff in some spots, and with town officials threatening to close Baxter Road, the homeowners last winter decided to seek urgent action.
With the support of the town’s Board of Selectmen, they filed an emergency request to dig trenches along the base of the bluff and install four rows of so-called geotubes, industrial-strength sacks filled with a mix of sand and water meant to mitigate erosion. They called it a model for other communities threatened by rising seas. But the Conservation Commission rejected the proposal.
So the homeowners appealed to the state Department of Environmental Protection, which quickly overruled the Conservation Commission. Days later, earth movers were on the beach installing the tubes.
Months of rancorous hearings and litigation followed, and in June, the Conservation Commission barred the homeowners from proceeding with the project. They again appealed to the Department of Environmental Protection, which is expected to rule next month on whether the project can continue.
“What they’re doing is environmentally unsustainable,” said D. Anne Atherton, a spokeswoman for the Nantucket Coastal Conservancy, a private group that opposes the project.
Atherton and others are also concerned about what they see as the homeowners’ connections to the Patrick administration, noting that the mainly wealthy homeowners include the billionaire businessman Amos Hostetter Jr. , who with others in the group have provided campaign contributions to the governor and other powerful lawmakers. They also note that the Preservation Fund’s former executive director, Cheryl Bartlett, serves as commissioner of the state Department of Public Health and that former Energy and Environmental Affairs secretary Rick Sullivan toured the bluff last summer.
“We just don’t want the Conservation Commission’s decision overturned for political reasons,” Atherton said.
Posner said he was unaware of anyone in his group lobbying the administration or state lawmakers to persuade environmental officials to rule in their favor.
“These allegations that a few ultrawealthy people are trying to protect their property at others’ expense, and that they know how to pull the strings of government, do not hold up,” he said. “We have the law and science on our side; we just want the law enforced.”
State environmental officials said it is common for the Department of Environmental Protection to overrule local conservation boards.
“There was nothing special about this superseding decision,” said Ed Coletta, a spokesman for the department.
Both sides are arguing over whether state wetlands law should apply to the project. The law bans barriers and the installation of other manmade devices within 100 feet of a coastal bank such as the bluff, but it does not apply to homes built before 1978. Most of the homes along Siasconset Bluff were built years earlier.
But those opposing the project say some of the affected homes were built afterward or were substantially improved since then, and that the law also should not apply to the vacant lots beside the bluff.
Opponents are concerned about the homeowners’ plans for replacing the sand from the bluff that would normally replenish their beaches.
Posner said they have poured 900 truckloads worth of sand – about 54 million pounds – over the geotubes, enough to simulate the bluff’s natural erosion. His group has vowed to replace as much sand as needed, in perpetuity.
But Atherton and others question whether it is feasible for the homeowners to deliver roughly 200 million pounds of sand a year to the beach — the amount that would be required if the full project wins approval — and they argue that several shipments a year cannot replace the random forces of nature.
They also wonder whether future owners of the homes will choose to continue what could ultimately be a futile project.
“Are their heirs going to want to spend their family fortune pouring sand into the ocean?” said Dirk Roggeveen, a former administrator of the Conservation Commission who represents villages with threatened beaches. “They haven’t come up with a realistic proposal for how this will be maintained forever.”
Much of the sand comes from pits in Nantucket. Posner estimated there is enough sand for the next 20 years to cover the geotubes. He hopes it will ultimately be feasible to dredge sand offshore.
Future owners of the property, he insisted, would have implicit incentives.
“It sounds like a lot of money, but doing nothing is a lot more expensive,” he said.
About $100 million worth of property has already been destroyed, but there’s about $300 million in property value remaining, he estimated.
“How much would you be willing to spend to protect that?” he said.
Margaret McQuade, whose cottage sits only a few yards from a roughly 100-foot drop, has cut her home into pieces and moved most of it about a mile inland. Part of the foundation, like a shipwreck, remains lodged on the slope of the bluff, a sandy escarpment that is home to swallows’ nests and discarded utility lines.
“We thought we’d be here the rest of our lives,” she said. “We’re trying to save what’s left.”