The battle to save the beach on Cape Cod

“I didn’t think I’d be spending my retirement money on sand.’’ It’s Sandwich homeowners against the town and the Army Corps of Engineers in the fight to stop the ocean from swallowing up their homes.

Sand has built up in front of the jetty, on Scusset Beach in Sagamore, and eroded to the east, on Town Neck Beach in Sandwich. —Google Maps

It was a clear, hot day in mid August, and a group of teenagers sunbathed on the jetty that extends 3,000 feet into Cape Cod Bay. A man fished off the side of the stone seawall as two motor boats buzzed past, their low drones echoing off the jetty’s rock.

The idyllic scene was a far cry from New England’s record-shattering winter, when Juno—one of the massive snowstorms that pummeled Massachusetts—sent waves crashing onto Town Neck Beach in Sandwich, a historic town that contains miles of coastal marshland. The sea swallowed dunes, flooded the homes behind them, and drowned septic systems and boardwalks. After the storm, Sandwich authorities declared a state of emergency and condemned over a dozen houses on Town Neck Beach. Meanwhile, houses across the canal on neighboring Scusset Beach were fine.

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Standing on his shrunken front yard in front of the ocean that drowned the public beach in front of his house, retired firefighter Paul Schneider looked at the sand he’d bought and placed on his property after the storm.

“I didn’t think I’d be spending my retirement money on sand,’’ he said.

The damage was so severe in part because the jetty, built in 1914 to slow the mouth of the Cape Cod Canal from silting up with sand, disrupts the sand’s natural downward movement along the coast. Along with rising sea levels and frequent, intense storms, it has caused Town Neck Beach to erode almost entirely, leaving about a dozen of Sandwich’s beachfront properties especially vulnerable to the ocean’s surges. Another big nor’easter could condemn more houses and topple others, scientists say.

“We’ve lost all our cushion for years,’’ said Bud Dunham, the Sandwich town manager. “We’ve just been getting slammed every time.’’

If you look at a satellite image of the coast, it’s easy to see what Dunham means. There’s an obvious difference in the depth of the beaches on either side of the canal. Scusset Beach, on the Sagamore side, stretches out hundreds of yards into the bay. By comparison, Town Neck Beach has withered away.

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Everybody in Sandwich wants to fix the problem and, for a while, it seemed like they were close. But negotiations between the town, the Army Corps and a number of beachfront property owners reached a stalemate this summer.

The final barrier standing between the homes and the wrath of the sea is a jagged line of cliffs close to 15 feet high, made of sand and dirt. They’re studded with roots and rocks. Carved out of the earth by vicious storms that pounded the coastline, the cliffs are, in some cases, dangerously close to the houses themselves.

These homes on the edge of the ocean have sloped rooftops and weatherbeaten shingles. Some of them are tiny and others are big; some are painted white and others have brightly colored trim.

But all of them are in more danger of getting swept out to sea than ever before.

A potential solution

A boardwalk on the beach in 2004. —Photo courtesy of Beverly Hand
And that same boardwalk in 2009. —Photo courtesy of Beverly Hand

For the past decade, the town of Sandwich wasn’t sure how to get enough sand to renourish the beach, let alone generate the money to pay for it. One option seemed to show promise: Every five to 10 years, the Army Corps would dredge the canal, which, along with the jetty, it maintains. Then it could use the sand dug up from the sea floor to rebuild the beach. The town at first asked the Army Corps to consider this possibility in 2008, but there was no money in the Corps’ budget for dredging until this year.

In 2014, the Corps’ New England division conducted a cost-benefit analysis of using 150,000 cubic yards of dredged sand to fix the beaches, called a Section 204 study. If the town would lose more money by letting the beach continue to erode than it would cost the Army Corps to fix it—rather than dumping it out to sea—the Corps would cover the cost of 65 percent of the work.

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While 150,000 cubic yards is a lot of sand—enough to form a 23-foot-high pile on a football field—it still wouldn’t be enough to completely cover the mile-and-a-quarter long beach. A study the town paid the Woods Hole Group to conduct in 2012 found that it would take 400,000 cubic yards of sand to completely rebuild the beach—almost triple the amount the Corps could provide.

The Corps focused on a plan that would put the sand, starting at the portion of the beach closest to the jetty and in front of the private homes, over a 2,500-foot stretch so that, over time, it would naturally flow to the east and help renourish the public beach.

The Army Corps said it would pay for $1.2 million of the project. The town would only need to come up with about $600,000, a sum that voters approved.

With the money, the sand, and the plans in place, all that was left was for the town to get permanent easements from the homeowners, which would convert their properties to public land: a requirement necessary by law in order to allow the Corps to use federal funds to work on it.

“We thought it would be a no-brainer,’’ Dunham said. So did Paul Sylvia, a former chairman of the town’s finance committee and one of the owners who agreed to sign the permanent easement.

“I thought [the other homeowners] were going to be carrying Bud on their shoulders, cheering, when they heard about it,’’ Sylvia said.

They were wrong.

A permanent problem

Town Neck Beach after winter storm Juno in 2015. —Photo courtesy of Darrell Davis

Before the words “permanent easement’’ came into play, the homeowners responded as Dunham and Sylvia thought they would. After years of watching their properties erode into the sea, they happily signed letters in April 2014 granting the Army Corps access to work on their land. (Full disclosure: One of the homeowners is the wife of Mike Sheehan, the CEO of Boston Globe Media Partners.)

“When we first bought the house, I took a tape measure and measured from that corner of the wall there, by my deck, out to where the dunes started to break,’’ said Darrell Davis, a retired Army sergeant, as he pointed at his porch and then at the ocean. “There were 120 feet out in front.’’

Now just 60 or 70 feet of sand stand between his house and the water, 40 of which he dumped in his yard after last winter’s brutal storms. Davis owns the modest bungalow with his wife, Irene, who is a professor at Harvard Medical School and director of the Spaulding National Running Center. If you stand in their living room, which opens into the kitchen, you can look into every room of the little house.

When most of the coastal residents bought their homes years ago, they were adjacent to the beach, not the water’s edge. But over the years, the public beach that was in front of their properties eroded until there was no beach left at all. Then the sea took the dunes, and most of the homes flooded last winter. In addition to repairing the damage, people paid to put new sand on the beach.

Everything changed this past June when the community learned that, in order to get the sand they so badly wanted, they would have to make a sacrifice: turning their private property over to the public domain. They were given 10 days to decide whether to sign.

The response was a resounding no. Of the 14 homeowners involved, 11 refused. Just three families agreed to allow the permanent easement.

There were several reasons they refused. They feel like they’d be sacrificing parts of their property forever. They also don’t trust that the town would keep renourishing the beach after the initial project is completed, given that it let the public beach erode to the point that it’s now underwater in front of their homes.

They say permanent easements don’t make sense for a temporary solution, either. The 150,000 cubic feet of sand would last five years at most, according to the 204 study.

Michael Riccio, an Army Corps project manager, told Boston.com they can’t move forward with the project without permanent easements from all of the owners.

“The entire project area would require public access,’’ he said.

Where’s the evidence?

This house was moved back 30 feet before Juno hit, and it’s once again right on the edge. —Photo by Charlotte Wilder

Boston attorney Brian Blaesser, who represents the 11 owners who didn’t sign, says he can’t find any legal documentation showing that the Army Corps requires permanent—rather than temporary—easements to work on the stretch of beach. He sent the Corps a letter on July 29 requesting a law or a statute that explicitly states this policy and says he hasn’t heard back. Blaesser also points to a lawsuit filed in opposition to a government plan to build a wall of coastal dunes in New Jersey, in which a former assistant secretary of the Army testified that permanent easements weren’t necessary.

After the Corps received Blaesser’s letter, it announced that it wouldn’t move forward with the project.

Permanent easements are Corps policy and there’s just no other way to do it, Riccio said. When asked if he had the documentation to show why the permanent easement is required, Riccio said that he was waiting to hear back from policy experts in Washington, D.C.

Neither the New England division nor Corps headquarters could provide documentation to Boston.com, either. Representatives from the Army Corps headquarters in Washington did not return requests for comment.

The Army Corps and the town contend that if the beach were to erode again after the project, the town could revoke the easements. But that line of reasoning doesn’t satisfy property owners.

“You never record a permanent limitation on the property with the hope that someone is going to release it,’’ Blaesser said. “Then it’s there. No lawyer would let their client record something on their property that has no guarantee of being taken off.’’

So what now?

The eroded beach today. —Photo by Charlotte Wilder

Once it became clear that using federal funds was no longer an option, the town decided to simply purchase the sand from the Army Corps for $1.7 million. But it won’t be used to save the homes on the water’s edge anymore.

On August 31, the measure will go to a formal vote at a town meeting.

If it passes, that sand won’t go in front of the properties near the jetty. Instead of rebuilding the beach closest to the mouth of the canal, the town is going to put the sand on the public part of the beach, which abuts a parking lot and marsh.

Sitting in his office in Sandwich’s Town Hall, Dunham shook his head and pursed his lips.

“I get frustrated, because it was given to [the group of property owners] on a silver platter, and they said no,’’ he said. “I don’t think it’s going to be received well by the general public.’’

It hasn’t been. The homeowners say the town and local media have vilified them and turned other Sandwich residents against them.

“People in town don’t understand the definition of permanent easement,’’ said Beverly Hand, one of the property owners who didn’t sign. “They’ve been told by local newspaper articles that 10 homeowners are refusing to let the town put sand on the beach. But that’s all they know. There’s hatred there. They give you the finger when they leave town meetings.’’

According to Dunham, the town decided to put the sand on the public beach because officials didn’t think taxpayers would agree to spend $1.2 million if it were still going to be put in front of the beachfront homes. Sandwich selectman Frank Panorfi said that the new placement would protect the marsh that leads to Route 6A and the downtown area.

“[The property owners who didn’t sign] just don’t want anybody near their spot of sand,’’ said Sylvia, one of the owners who agreed to the permanent easements. “Part of it ain’t fair, but sometimes you gotta look at the greater good and not be so stubborn. If somebody is going to give you a major gift, are you going to put conditions on it? Somebody’s going to buy you a Rolls-Royce, and you say, ‘Oh, I don’t want it unless it’s silver.’ I would rather allow people to walk all over my yard and have trucks on it than lose my house.’’

Last Friday, Blaesser sent a letter to the town urging them to “resist the emotional urge to punish these homeowners.’’

“I think it’s vindictive,’’ he said in a phone interview. “They don’t even have a plan prepared yet.’’

Blaesser points to the Army Corps’ 204 study, which states that “providing the material at the most up drift location, closest to the Cape Cod Canal, makes the most sense from a coastal processes standpoint.’’ The study found that if sand weren’t placed in front of those private homes, the land could erode all the way back to the public Town Neck Road, creating damage that would cost the town $3.9 million, by one estimate. Putting the sand in front of the homes would save taxpayers $2.25 million over five years.

The town doesn’t have hard numbers for the cost-benefit of the new plan. It doesn’t have to conduct an analysis since federal funds aren’t at play anymore, Dunham said.

“From a coastal processes standpoint, if you get only part of the sand, the best approach is to put it on the up drift side,’’ said Kirk Bosma, a coastal engineer at Woods Hole. “But that doesn’t that mean that from an overall perspective, [up drift] is the best place to put it. There’s also recreational goals, public useage goals, natural resource goals.’’

Given that the Army Corps thoroughly analyzed both the costs and the coastal systems to come up with the original plan, Hand said she thinks the town would be “irresponsible and financially negligent’’ not to follow it. She and the other property owners who didn’t sign the permanent easements say they’d be fine signing temporary easements.

They also say they’d pay the town back for the portion of sand that would go on their private property if the original placement were still carried out. This would cost taxpayers less money overall, they argue.

With no other options left and their homes in jeopardy, this small band of shore-dwellers is still holding out hope that the town may still put the sand on their property.

In his office, with maps of the beaches and binders of forms and applications scattered across his desk, Dunham sighed.

“It’s too late,’’ he said. “The project’s moving forward not in front of their houses.’’

All of this, however, is contingent on the Corps formally agreeing to sell the sand to the town, and on the taxpayers agreeing to buy it for $1.7 million at the August 31 meeting. If the town won’t stick to the original plan, will they keep fighting?

“It’s easy to say, ‘They should’ve signed the easements,’’’ said Schneider. “But until you’re in someone else’s shoes, you can’t say what you’d do.’’

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