CHATHAM — The sands of Cape Cod have always shifted with the tides, but rising seas and more powerful storms are accelerating erosion and putting more homes at risk.
Last winter, when a succession of brutal storms battered much of the state, this town at the Cape’s elbow was hit with massive tides. Breaches in barrier beaches widened. Swollen sandbars narrowed the main channel used by the local fishing fleet. Bluffs fell into the sea.
The damage has left Chatham residents at odds over how to respond, sparking a fierce debate in the town and beyond about whether state restrictions on private sea walls and other fortifications should be relaxed to account for climate change.
Regulations enacted in 1978 largely ban the construction of sea walls and other hard defenses to protect homes built after that year, when a catastrophic blizzard damaged much of the Massachusetts coast. Local rules often impose additional burdens on residents, including those with homes built before then.
“The stock of post-’78 property is growing at least as rapidly as sea levels are rising,” said Jay McGonigle, whose Chatham home was built after 1978, which he calls “a very arbitrary cutoff date for protecting one’s property.”
Like many other coastal residents with newer homes, he worries about his house being more likely to be swept away as global warming strengthens storms. And he complains about the inequities.
“Our property borders the town’s rock revetment, and it has been incredibly frustrating to watch our bank wash away while the bank behind the revetment stays in great shape,” he said.
At the other end of the Cape, in Sandwich, Paul Schneider has been watching the sea draw ever closer to his modest ranch just off Town Neck Beach. Unable to build a sea wall, he has spent tens of thousands of dollars on sand to prevent his 1,300-square-foot home from being claimed by the ocean.
But that didn’t prevent more than $100,000 in flood damages from a storm last winter, he said. In 2015, a blizzard destroyed his furnace, hot water heater, generator, and other valuables when his basement flooded.
“Homeowners ought to be able to protect their property without all the bureaucracy,” said Schneider, a retired firefighter. “If I was allowed to put stone out there, or something solid, it would secure our property.”
Environmental advocates, however, insist the restrictions are necessary and will only become more so in the coming years. Coastal fortifications, which line about 27 percent of the state’s shore, may protect the homes directly behind them, but they compromise the natural integrity of the beach and hasten erosion, potentially threatening unprotected properties nearby.
“We cannot stop coastal erosion any more than we can stop the moon from setting the tides,” said Jack Clarke, director of public policy at Mass Audubon and a member of the state’s Coastal Erosion Commission. “If we wall off our coastline with stone and concrete, we lose the ability of the beaches to provide habitat for wildlife, and the ability of natural beaches to be resilient in the face of climate change.”
As the planet warms, seas could rise as much as 10.5 feet and annual precipitation could increase by up to 16 percent by the end of the century, according to a state report released last month about the impact of climate change on Massachusetts. The frequency of heavy storms is also likely to increase.
A gradual retreat from vulnerable parts of the coast may ultimately be the best defense, Clarke and others say.
“It’s important to understand that many of the issues we face now are going to get worse,” said Rob Thieler, director of the US Geological Survey’s Woods Hole Coastal and Marine Science Center. “This is something we need to be paying more attention to.”
Along the state’s 1,500-mile shoreline, about 65 acres are lost to the sea every year, and that’s likely to increase as storms grow more powerful and seas rise, according to the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies. Between 1978 and 2013, flooding and other storm damage were estimated to cost the state nearly $1 billion, according to the most recent state report on coastal erosion.
The nor’easters last winter, including one with record-setting tides, damaged more than 2,000 coastal homes, from Salisbury to Chatham, and led to “widespread beach and dune erosion,” according to the state’s request for federal disaster assistance.
The US government has since approved payments of about $50 million to cover the costs of just two of those storms.
State environmental officials declined to be interviewed, but in a statement they said they don’t support changing the rules to allow more homeowners to build walls.
“[We] continue to believe that solutions that effectively serve as hard structures are not appropriate forms of coastal erosion measures, and that attempting to halt the natural process of erosion with such structures results in other negative outcomes, including, in many cases, subjecting down-drift property owners to similar or greater losses,” said Katie Gronendyke, a spokeswoman for the state’s Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs.
Instead, the state is focusing on measures that have proved to be effective at reducing erosion, such as regular beach and dune nourishment programs, she said.
Coastal homeowners aren’t likely to give up their pristine views without a fight.
Along Siasconset Beach on Nantucket, despite drawn-out fights with neighbors, a group of wealthy residents have spent millions of dollars in recent years to protect their bluff from collapsing, using special sacks of sand and water called geotubes. Neighbors argued that the geotubes would prevent the natural erosion that brought sand to their beaches.
“Clearly it is not sensible to simply abandon established communities — even those that are only 10 or 20 years old — that had no real way of knowing the climate change was going to accelerate erosion,” said Josh Posner, president of the Siasconset Beach Preservation Fund. “Finding the right balance of protection and environmental mitigation is the challenge.”
Last winter’s storms also took a toll on the coast in Plymouth, where Gerald Robillard and his neighbors experienced a significant amount of erosion along their beaches. Now they’re appealing to the local Conservation Commission to allow him to build a sea wall in front of his home, the only one nearby built after 1978.
“If I don’t do this, it will have an adverse impact on my neighbors,” he said. “The rules are out of control. They need to be changed.”
In Chatham, where the sea has claimed at least nine homes in recent decades, Gerry Milden would spend whatever it takes to maintain the waterfront views from his multimillion-dollar home, he said.
Although his century-old home is exempt from the rules, he’s still feeling the pain from the increasing erosion.
In 2010, several years after a major breach opened in the barrier beach across from his home on Ministers Point, Milden paid about $250,000 to replace a wooden structure along his shoreline with a 220-foot stone revetment. After a storm last winter left a massive crater in the new barrier, he spent another $75,000 to repair it.
But he no longer has a beach in front of his property, and he worries that rising seas might one day devour his four-bedroom home, as he says they nearly did last March.
Milden’s fears have also contributed to tensions in town. He said that town officials have made his problems worse by dredging shoals built up from recent storms, sending damaging rip currents toward his property. Town officials and fishermen insist the dredging is needed to ensure the safety of local mariners.
“If we don’t fix these problems soon, we’re going into the drink,” Milden said. “Cape Cod is going to have to be armored, or we won’t be here much longer.”