CHAPPAQUIDDICK — The house was denounced even before it was built: an 8,300-square-foot mansion with seven bathrooms and a bowling alley in the basement, rising on a fragile cliff above the ocean. To many island residents it was a violation, eternally defiling their beloved rural landscape.
Or maybe not so eternally.
Six years after Washington, D.C., private equity firm partner Richard Schifter and his wife, Jennifer, finished building their summer retreat, the cliff where it sits is crumbling into the sea at a rate sometimes surpassing a foot a day. Erosion of the bluff, on Wasque Point at the southern tip of Chappaquiddick, accelerated after April 2007, when a fierce nor’easter punched a hole through the barrier beach at nearby Norton Point, changing how the ocean moves around the island.
Now that the distance between their swimming pool and the edge of the bluff has dwindled from 220 feet to a mere 40, the Schifters have launched an urgent quest to save their property by moving it — all of it, including the gray-shingled, 1,200-ton main house and surrounding guest house, pool and terrace, garage and landscaping — back from the cliff. The gambit, which locals guess will cost millions, has become a closely watched saga on Martha’s Vineyard, drawing scrutiny from neighbors and local officials.
Coming in the midst of national debate about the sustainability of coastal communities, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy and a series of ferocious winter storms, the dilemma faced by one family in a quiet corner of the Vineyard has forced islanders to confront hard questions: about the force of nature and the changing climate, the limits of human resistance, and the shape their evolving island will take in the future.
Undercurrents of amazement run through the debate — at the stunning speed of the erosion underway, which has dissolved about 200 feet of land in the past year, and at the audacity of the gamble being waged. If the Schifters and their engineers have miscalculated, and the ocean continues to eat away their land at the same pace, their plan to move the house back 275 feet will not be enough to save it for long.
“It is a question, if spending all this money to move the house, when it might only be safe for a year or two, is something reasonable to allow,” Edward Vincent Jr., chairman of the Edgartown Conservation Commission, said at a meeting last month, before the board voted unanimously to authorize the relocation. “We’ve seen tremendous erosion the last 50, 60 years, and whether that point will be there in another 10 years, I don’t know.”
Erosion is not new to the Vineyard, or to Chappaquiddick, the 6-square-mile island east of Edgartown, reached by a tiny ferry, where fewer than 200 people live year-round.
For centuries, residents and scientists have documented changes in the size and shape of the island, including periods of dramatic transformation as well as less dynamic intervals. Surveys dating to the 1700s show previous breaches in the Norton Point barrier beach, breaks which eventually closed as the shifting ocean currents slowly restored sand deposits.
If the general pattern is familiar, though, the situation now unfolding at Wasque (pronounced “way-skwee”) Point has generated sharply differing opinions — on how soon the breach might close, slowing the erosion; on the role of climate change and rising sea levels in what is happening; and on how much leeway should be granted to homeowners who build in an environment known to be in flux.
Some observers call the recent pace of erosion unprecedented and unforeseeable. Hundreds of feet of sandy beach have vanished since the 2007 breach, in addition to the more recent collapse of the bluff itself. Others say the rapid changes are not so surprising, and that the Schifters’ plight might have been avoided if those who built the house had minded the lessons of history.
“The biggest lesson in all of this is to take advantage of all the information available,” said David Foster, a Harvard ecologist and Vineyard homeowner who has studied landscape dynamics on the island. “In this case, that leads to a good understanding of how Martha’s Vineyard is shrinking, eroding away, more rapidly at its southern end . . . We can use that kind of information in planning decisions, and in an era of global change, we need to do more of that.”
As climate change causes glaciers to melt and warming oceans to expand, Massachusetts is particularly vulnerable. Sea levels here are rising three to four times faster than the global average, according to a 2012 US Geological Survey report. That means when storms hit — even low-intensity storms — flooding and erosion could be intensified. Continued...