A Cape Cod Notebook 1/29/08

listenMoving a Beach Cottage

By Robert Finch

Last month, while I was walking the ocean bluffs in the southern part of my town, I came upon an odd sight. Well, it didn't seem odd at first. Near the edge of the bluff was an old wooden two-story bea ch cottage, probably built before World War II. It was modest in size and materials, and its days were obviously numbered. A small deck already leaned slightly over the lip of the crest. In its current location, the cottage probably had no more than five years to live.

Next to the cottage, and towering over it, sat a large red crane. It was a heavy and expensive piece of machinery, and its purpose was clear. Thick steel cables were wrapped around the cottage, and the crane was poised to move it to a new and safer location.

So far, this was not an uncommon sight on the Outer Beach. In the past modest structures like this o ne were usually allowed to fall into the sea. But as these beach cottages became more valuable and more substantial, owners have often moved their structures further back from the edge. In this case, tho ugh, that was not an option. A dirt road ran directly behind the cottage, preventing a retreat. Instead, a new and very substantial foundation of concrete posts and pressure-treated pilings had been built immediately to the side of the cottage. It was clear that the intent was to have the crane lift the cottage off its old wooden post foundation and move or slide it sideways onto the new one.

Now normally a horizontal move like this would not gain the owners anything. But in this case the ed ge of the bluff swung out substantially in front of the new foundation. The site where the cottage curr ently sat was about fifteen feet back from the edge of the ocean bluff. On the new foundation it would be about 45 feet back from the edge. That would give them a gain of about 30 feet. O.K., I thought, le t's do the math. Traditionally, the erosion rate for the Outer Beach is given as three feet per year, pr obably a conservative figure. Still, that means this move will give the cottage owners at best ten extra ye ars. The cost of such a move must be enormous, most likely far more than the original cost of the buildin g and the land on which it sits.

It's easy, of course, to feel a certain smug contempt for such futile and expensive attempts to esca pe the ocean's relentless advance. But in this case I didn't. Instead, I felt a certain sympathy, eve n a grudging admiration. Perhaps it was the modest nature of the building, or the fact that by moving sideways, rather than backwards, the owners seemed to be acknowledging that they could not avoid their fate, but only postpone it a short while.

Or perhaps it was because the whole enterprise seemed to express something fundamental about our attitude towards the inevitable. How we scramble and scheme to purchase a few more years for both our buildings and ourselves! Money is no object. We know that the ocean will not stop, that the la nd will soon give way in spite of all our stratagems and expense. Oh, but give us but a few more summe rs to see and taste the beauty of life, to stand on the lip of the earth and drink in its pleasures. T hen we will go, if not gladly, at least willingly, with a sense of a bargain made, accepted, and kept.