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No erosion of hope

Susan and Roger Carroll at their cottage on North Beach, where several buildings could be swept into the ocean. Susan and Roger Carroll at their cottage on North Beach, where several buildings could be swept into the ocean. (Steve Haines For The Boston Globe)
By Peter Schworm
Globe Staff / October 17, 2011

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CHATHAM - For generations, the sliver of sand known as North Beach has weathered the Atlantic’s wrath, valiantly shielding this outer Cape town from the ocean’s full force.

Its sacrifice has come at a cost. Two decades ago, what became known as the “Perfect Storm’’ slammed into the barrier beach with fearsome power, destroying about 15 cottages.

Four years ago, a series of storms pounded its fragile shoreline again, cutting it off from the mainland entirely.

Through it all, some residents stayed put, as if in tribute to their proud summer home, steadfast against the tides and shifting sands.

But now, rapid erosion has left several cottages perched precariously on the water’s edge, their demise seemingly a matter of time. The Cape Cod National Seashore, which owns five of the remaining 11 cottages, says that the homes could easily be swept away this winter, and wants to demolish the structures in a controlled manner before the ocean does. The idea is to avoid having potentially damaging debris hurled into the choppy waters around Chatham.

Residents have banded together in an emotional fight to save them, desperate to savor the dying days of their retreats as long as possible.

“We recognize there’s erosion,’’ said Susan Carroll, who has leased a North Beach home for more than two decades. “But our point is that there’s always hope. And this is a very special place.’’

The debate about the cottages began in mid-August, when the National Seashore sent eviction notices to the owners, and has since played out in a series of charged meetings. The threat to the homes, iconic fixtures of the local shoreline known here as camps, has also resonated deeply with many locals, who say they struggle to picture the town without them.

But sentimental attachment will not hold back the tides, supporters of demolition say. George Price, superintendent of the National Seashore, said the island has lost 80 feet of beach each of the past few years, and the bayside has been scoured as well.

“One is standing in the water at high tide every day,’’ Price said. “It’s been a dramatic change the past two to three years.’’

The homes at the greatest risk are near the northern tip of the island, which is just a mile off shore and a popular destination for area boaters.

The breach in 2007, which destroyed several homes to the north, sharply accelerated the rate of erosion, Price said. Coastal erosion specialists have been monitoring the island, and after a visit in August they told Price the situation had become dire.

“It is their professional judgment that two homes may not last the winter,’’ Price said. “The other three may be safe for another season or two, but not more than that.’’

Owners have leased the cottages from the National Seashore for $8,000 a year, and would not receive compensation for them.

Price had wanted to remove all five structures before winter arrived, but has faced staunch resistance from residents, backed by some local officials. With the help of a consultant, residents are seeking to have the cottages protected as historical landmarks, and the state’s historical commission recently said the structures might qualify.

But Price said he does not believe the homes, which were rebuilt after the Perfect Storm, qualify for historical protection, and it is better to destroy them now than to risk the hazards of natural destruction later.

“Things have changed so much, it’s really causing concern,’’ he said. “This is the best opportunity to have them removed.’’

But the Carrolls say they would rather see the homes swept away by the sea in a poetic surge than dismantled by the government. Nature should take its course, they say, and let the cottages have their final stand.

“If the ocean took it tomorrow, as long as the Seashore didn’t take it, I’d be happy,’’ Susan Carroll said. “I think that’s how everyone feels.’’

On a visit Friday to the Carrolls’ home, the arguments on both sides were clear. On the bayside, one stilted home was partially in the water, while the tide crashed just 60 feet away from a beach cottage.

The Carrolls’ home, standing about seven feet above the middle of the island, is among the safest remaining cottages. But at high tide, channels slice through the sand and bush, and a large pool of water gathers beside their deck.

At the same time, it is a deeply beautiful place that despite its proximity to shore feels a world away.

“It’s like you’re in the ocean,’’ Susan Carroll said. “You may well have gone to another country.’’

The Carrolls also say their section of the beach did not erode much this year, providing hope that their home could survive another few years. Coastal patterns change quickly, they say, and defy prediction.

“It changes all the time,’’ said Roger Carroll. “There are so many variables.’’

On Friday, Price called the Carrolls with news of a reprieve. They now had until the end of the year to leave the property. Suddenly the prospect of another summer on North Beach seemed possible, and the couple shared a loving smile.

A bit further down the beach, they stood on the water’s edge, as a high-tide surf pounded the beach and a light rain fell. Down the beach, the waves had gouged a crescent in a dune, clearing the way for the next storm surge.

But the Carrolls, their home safe for the moment, looked out toward the horizon, where slate-gray skies met the churning sea.

Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globepete.