While it's only a coincidence that the release of an administrative decision regarding a proposed revetment on Shore Road came just days after a new break was formed in South Beach a few miles to the south, both events highlight the dynamics of Chatham's eastern shoreline and provide guidance as to how officials can approach these highly complex issues.
The administrative decision upholding the denial of a 108-foot revetment for property at 498 Shore Rd., along Aunt Lydia's Cove, is, in essence, an endorsement of science and commonsense regulations over emotions. Chatham's conservation commission initially approved the revetment in 2014 at the behest of the owners, who believed their home was in danger from erosion of the coastal bank and that they had a right to protect their property. The decision was made in defiance of advice from town staff and the commission's own consultant, and flew in the face of the state Wetlands Protect Act. The Department of Environmental Protect, and a group of 10 local residents, appealed the approval, and the agency overturned the concom's decision. After a long delay, the owners' appeal of that denial was turned down last week following an adjudicatory hearing; in the decision, the presiding officer rejected the owners' position that the coastal bank was not a meaningful source of sediment for surrounding beaches. Even a small amount of sand from an eroding bank helps protect beaches from storm damage and flooding, and a revetment would prevent that from happening, the ruling stated.
The decision, if upheld by the head of DEP, has significant implications for Chatham. For one thing, it means that the conservation commission must adhere to state wetlands regulations when reviewing revetments and other proposals; just because they think something is a good idea or that property rights should be paramount ignores the law of the land. Especially regarding coastal issues, there is a larger purpose at play here, one that the regulations recognize. Large sections of Chatham's eastern coast are protected by revetments, which no doubt saved many homes from erosion. In many of those areas, there are no beaches to speak of, and experts have said that there's no telling how the armoring of the shoreline will impact the barrier beach cycle – will it accelerate the process, slow it down? – but there's also no question that it is having an effect.
This will become critical as tides and current increase south of Lighthouse Beach, in the former Southway area behind the South Beach break that occurred April 1. While sand from South Beach is likely, in the short term, to move west and protect the inner shoreline, there's no doubt that will be temporary and that eventually – months, years, no one can predict when – erosion will attack the low-lying dunes of Little Beach and areas to the south. Property owners there will seek to protect their land and homes. The state will no doubt hold the conservation commission to the existing regulations, which may prove problematic both both residents and the commission, since hard structures like revetments aren't allowed in a dune environment such as exists in that area.
Years ago, not long after erosion began to ravage Chatham's coast in the wake of the 1987 break opposite Chatham Light, local and state regulators worked with shorefront property owners to develop a comprehensive shoreline protection that that included the Little Beach area. Preemptively, the plan should be dusted off and reworked to develop a strategy to deal with the erosion that is extremely likely to hit the low-lying shoreline. If instead a piecemeal approach is taken, it's likely to run into many of the same issues that dogged the Shore Road revetment plan. That would not be in anyone's best interest.