Some Vineyard towns have started to make tough decisions. In Chilmark earlier this year, officials denied a request to move a modest summer house teetering on the edge of an eroding cliff, saying the structure’s relocation would simply be postponing the inevitable. The house, above Stonewall Beach, was ordered torn down instead.
In an interview, Richard Schifter said his quandary offered no easy solution.
“In the absence of action, we would end up with a house on the beach, which nobody wants,” he said. “So do you demolish the house or do you move it? The decision makers have supported the idea that we move the house instead of demolishing it.”
The Schifters are not the only property owners in trouble on Wasque Point, though their predicament — and aggressive, expensive response to it — has attracted the most attention. A smaller, 30-year-old house nearby, owned by a Lexington couple, is also threatened by the fast- advancing ocean.
The homeowner, Jerry Wacks, expressed sadness at the Schifters’ plight and said he has been troubled by the “downright mean” tone taken by some critics.
“No one knows what it’s like to be in this predicament until you’re in it,” he said. “At the time all these houses were built, there was nothing illegal or wrong about it. We were almost a quarter-mile back when we built, and no one even imagined anything like this could happen . . . It’s easy to second-guess, but at the time, looking at it, it looked like a long way away.”
He did not respond when asked what he plans to do about the threat to his own house.
Edgartown officials say it would be difficult to deny the Schifters the right to move their house, regardless of how fruitless the effort might turn out to be. “It’s Mr. Schifter’s money,” said Vincent, the Conservation Commission chairman.
Still, some islanders have criticized the commission for its decision, saying members’ first responsibility is to protect the fragile bluff from damage. They fear massive digging at the site could permanently scar it or leave it even more vulnerable to erosion — with no guarantee that the upheaval will save the house.
Addressing concerns that the cliff might keep receding to the house’s new location, Peter Rosen, a coastal geologist hired by the Schifters to assess the erosion, called the past winter “a very, very rare circumstance of storm after storm” and predicted the rate of erosion will slow to a more normal six to nine feet per year.
But even Richard Schifter acknowledged the risk that it might not.
“It’s being moved as far as it can be, given the property lines,” he said. “I could understand the concern if we were moving it only 10 feet. . . . We hope that with 250 feet, it will be more than sufficient. But there’s no certainty when you’re dealing with something like this.”
Increasingly, local officials are dealing with the uncertainties. Elsewhere on the Vineyard, in Aquinnah, the iconic Gay Head lighthouse is also threatened by erosion and in urgent need of relocation. More than half the permit requests now before Edgartown’s Conservation Commission are from residents hoping to address the effects of erosion, said Vincent, the chairman.
Vincent, whose family has lived on the Vineyard for more than three centuries, said changing attitudes are part of the equation.
“Very few old-timers would build anything that close to the ocean,” he said.
On Chappaquiddick, known locally as “Chappy,” the prevailing ethos was long steeped in old-fashioned Yankee restraint. Houses here tended to be modest and hard to see, tucked in among dirt roads and acres of wild scrub oaks.
Residents, who gather twice a month for potluck suppers at the shingled community center, are fiercely protective of the island’s rural character; some have even pitched in to buy houses on the island for the purpose of demolishing them, creating more open space and unobstructed views.
Roger Becker, president of the Chappaquiddick Island Association, said he has heard some support for the Schifters, “people saying, if it was my house, I hope they would let me move it.”
But many others are simply incredulous.
“The word I hear is ‘crazy’,” said Becker, a longtime island resident who objected to the size of the Schifters’ house when it was built, and was motivated by its construction to run for the Planning Board, where he served five years.
The project has raised concerns about traffic on the quiet island — hundreds of truck trips will be required to ferry in heavy equipment and carry out debris — and the environmental impact on Wasque Point.Continued...