On Morris Island, A Race Against Time: Town OK’s Emergency Repairs To Private Revetment

by Alan Pollock

CHATHAM – Contractors are racing to replace a rock revetment that protects a $20 million Morris Island home from falling into the harbor, after the previous seawall was claimed by erosion.

Ten-wheeled dump trucks are shuttling boulders to the property at a regular pace, and a barge with a crane will be stationed just offshore of the property, near the busy harbor entrance.

“Anyone with a boat has noticed over the past several months that the revetment at 97 Tilipi [Run] has seriously degraded, completely failed in some areas, and has slipped into the waters,” Natural Resources Director Greg Berman told the select board last week. The upland area is now directly exposed to ocean waves and strong currents; large trees have already washed into the harbor, and “potential loss of the residential structure could similarly introduce debris and hazardous materials into the harbor, jeopardizing public health and safety and negatively impacting protected resource areas,’ a town report reads.

Owned by Girish Navani of TR 97 Nominee Trust, the 7,465-square-foot home at 97 Tilipi Run was protected by a rock wall built in 1991, but strong tidal currents in recent months undermined the structure and caused it to collapse. In January, the conservation commission approved an emergency order allowing installation of 60-foot steel sheeting along more than 200 feet of waterfront, “but it turns out that the coastal bank does not have the geotechnical properties to be able to support sheet pile,” Berman said. The engineering plan has been changed several times and now calls for some 900 truckloads of rock to be delivered to the site and installed over the summer.

“This was highly concerning to a number of town staff,” Berman said. The plan also called for a 70-by-140-foot barge to be stationed just offshore with a crane to position the rocks.

“The harbormaster was concerned that it would block traffic and potentially be a hazard to recreational and commercial boaters. It was intended to be left there all night, 24 hours a day,” he said.

In response to the town’s concerns, the plans have been altered to lessen impacts on the public, Berman said. The trucks will pause their deliveries on July 2 “so it doesn’t interfere with the July 4 weekend travel,” and a new route is in use.

“The truck route that they showed us had them going right down Main Street past town hall,” Berman said. In the summertime, it’s difficult enough to drive a car through downtown Chatham, “much less a 10-wheeled truck full of rock,” he said. The new route has the trucks accessing Morris Island via Shore Road.

But town officials also raised concerns about the aging tide gate on Morris Island Road. Plans are underway to replace the failing structure, but officials are still studying the best kind of replacement, or whether a tide gate is needed there at all.

“In the short term, we did not want this many trucks impacting the tide gate,” Berman said. Last week, contractor Robert B. Our, Co., installed steel plating over the top of the gate with paved transitions, designed to help protect the structure against the weight of the trucks.

Select board member Dean Nicastro asked whether the town is insured against damage that might be caused by the truck traffic. Board member Jeffrey Dykens said he has the same concern.

“These are some of the heaviest vehicles we’re going to experience here in Chatham, ever,” he said. Berman said he would inquire whether the policy indemnifying the property owner could also cover the town.

Responding to concerns, project engineers have now proposed a barge that is half the size of the original one, and “they’re going to tuck it up against the shoreline when it’s not in use,” Berman said. The property owner has also agreed to have a safety boat in place to keep other vessels from getting too close when work is being conducted, he said.

“This sounds like a massive project for the homeowners,” select board member Shareen Davis said. “They obviously must have the means and the will to be able to facilitate this.” She asked whether the remains of the previous revetment would pose a hazard to navigation. Berman said the bigger danger is from trees falling from the eroding cliffs.

“We have actually contracted with several folks in town to remove some of the most hazardous trees that have the most danger of being in the waterways,” he said. The trees from 97 Tilipi Run were all marked with red tape or paint, and of the 30 or 40 removed from the area, five or six were from this property. The property owner will reimburse the town for the removal of these trees, Berman said.

The majority of the remaining trees came from the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge, which has no revetment to protect it and has experienced severe erosion. The town has been working with refuge officials, but have been told that no immediate funds are available to pay for the tree removal. The priority now, Berman said, is to protect public safety by keeping the logs and tree parts out of the way of boaters.

While revetments and other manmade structures can protect a property from erosion, they cause the beach to be starved of sand, accelerating erosion in the adjacent areas. Davis said she’s concerned about that.

“I understand the property owner has the right to protect his property and do what he can,” she said. “I’m just concerned about abutters, the degradation that will go on.”

“I completely agree that we can often be chasing erosion or pushing it farther away,” Berman said. “There’s really no stopping erosion; there’s only displacing it,” he said. Erosion has been actively washing away the refuge property, “and the same thing could happen farther south,” Berman said.

While the current work is being done under the emergency certification permit, work done after July 2 will need to undergo the ordinary conservation commission review as a notice of intent filing.