Amid Climate Change, Student Proposes ‘Chatham Beach Protection Fund’

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Monomoy Regional High School , Beaches , Climate Change

Christie Beckley. COURTESY PHOTO

CHATHAM — One of the things Christie Beckley likes best about her hometown is, of course, its beaches. But with the effects of climate change already becoming clear, the Monomoy Regional High School sophomore wants Chatham to take steps to preserve those beaches in the face of sea level rise and erosion. She recently outlined her plan for the parks and recreation commission.

“It’s so important that our beaches are protected from the negative consequences of climate change, because if not, the economy of Chatham will be negatively impacted,” Beckley told the commissioners on March 23. She proposed a town surcharge on beach fees to help pay for improvements or repairs at beaches, including work to make them more resistant to rising water.

Beckley is a member of the Cape Cod Commission’s Climate Ambassador program, which includes high school students from around the Cape. Each member is required to accomplish a creative project in their community to combat or highlight the effects of climate change. In Chatham, the most pressing problems are sea level rise and the erosion that accompanies it, she said.

“These two effects both pose huge threats to Chatham’s beaches. And the impacts of climate change are already evident,” she said. Beckley pointed to the ongoing erosion on Morris Island and the retreating coastline on parts of Cape Cod Bay that have claimed houses in Eastham and Sandwich. She showed federal maps that predict the location of the shoreline in 2050, when sea level is forecast to have risen by three feet. Many beaches and properties are inundated, and some roads are cut off.

Based on newspaper headlines in recent months, “that’s not completely unrealistic,” Beckley said. She directed the commissioners to www.CapeCodCoast.org, the Cape Cod Commission’s Coastal Planner tool, which allows users to select portions of the shoreline to examine the likely effects of sea level rise as well as potential mitigation strategies.

“Climate change is only going to become worse with time, which is why now is the time to address it,” she added.

Beckley argues in favor of creating a Chatham Beach Protection Fund, receiving monies from a “climate adaptation surcharge” on beach fees. Though the amount of the surcharge is debatable, a 5 percent increase would generate around $25,000 a year, based on annual beach sticker revenues of $500,000. That would mean that daily beach passes would cost $21 instead of $20, and seasonal stickers would cost $184 instead of $175.

“This money would be enough to start a meaningful fund that can then be administered by the parks and recreation commission,” she said.

Though the fund would be modest in size, the monies could be used to support the repair of storm damage, the removal of washed-up debris, the replanting of beach grass and dune nourishment, and salt marsh restoration efforts. The goal would be to protect the quality of the town’s beaches and their healthy ecosystems, while reducing their vulnerability to erosion and storm surges, she said.

“And also to spread awareness and educate others about the importance of addressing climate change in our community,” Beckley said. It might also be wise to install signs at area beaches to explain the climate adaptation surcharge.

“Beachgoers would be made aware that they are making a small contribution to the fund in buying their beach pass fees,” she said. “It would demonstrate to the public that the town of Chatham is being aggressive in the fight against climate change,” and could encourage other towns to do the same, Beckley said.

Commissioner Ira Seldin said he supports efforts to protect the beaches from the effects of climate change.

“It’s crucial to Chatham,” he said. But is such a surcharge legal for the town to collect?

Parks and recreation Director Dan Tobin said that the fund would need careful accounting, and there would need to be clear guidance about how the proceeds could be spent. “There’s a due process to be followed to do something like this,” he said. “But it is certainly doable.”

Commissioner David Eldredge praised Beckley for her presentation, but wondered how far the fund would go in supporting projects like dune nourishment and wetlands restoration.

“Some of that stuff’s really, really expensive,” he said. Eldredge urged Beckley to consider organizing volunteers to help with a beach cleanup and other work, “and help with costs.”

“I used 5 percent as a starting example,” Beckley said. The number might be increased or the funds might be saved over several years to contribute to more costly projects, “because I understand that all those projects can be expensive.”

While the town already pays for some such projects and can always use taxpayer revenues to support them, having a dedicated source of money would send a message, she added.

“We’re not just using the general fund. We’re so concerned about this issue that we’re establishing its own fund.”

Commissioner Dave Mallowes said the town needs to tread carefully when it comes to raising beach fees.

“If you keep raising the parking, we will start losing revenue as people go to other towns,” he said.

Seldin urged Beckley to connect with others who are working on the issue, like the Association to Preserve Cape Cod.

“Certainly you’ve hit upon a very serious issue that needs to be considered,” he said.

Tobin said that it’s too late to consider creating the fund for the upcoming beach season, since stickers and tickets have already been printed. But it could be something the commission could consider when setting fees for next year, he said.

“Let’s keep the conversation going,” commission Chair Meredith Fry said. “I think it’s a good idea. I don’t think it’s something that can’t happen in the near future.”