A series of nor’easters this winter have ripped at houses along the Massachusetts coast and flooded entire neighborhoods. Especially on Cape Cod, where Matthew Cole builds and restores homes.
“This past winter has certainly been one of those bad years where areas along the coastline have experienced significant erosion,” Cole said.
Over the years, some homes he has worked on needed to be moved back from the beach. Others have needed their foundations reinforced. And then there are even more extreme cases. This winter a storm washed away 15 to 20 feet of dunes in front of a house in Truro.
“The sea got so far (inland) as to erode sand underneath the foundation elements of the house and its decks,” Cole recalls.
The extreme weather has raised questions among environmental organizations and the state about whether to keep rebuilding properties prone to such extreme weather damage.
“We should be learning from our mistakes,” said Jack Clarke, director of public policy for Mass Audubon. “There are some places we should not be reinvesting in.”
He favors an approach called managed retreat, where property owners can choose not to rebuild after a storm and instead relocate away from the shoreline. Clarke wants to see a program that buys back coastal homes.
“The state government would cooperate with municipalities and purchase from willing property owners those properties that are repeatedly and substantially damaged by storms,” he said.
Clarke thinks this is a public safety issue. Managed retreat, he said, could potentially save lives when the next storm hits. He thinks it could save taxpayer dollars as well, because federal flood insurance and public works programs repeatedly spend money to rebuild the homes in the same locations.
Clarke says there are several benefits when the state buys back land under managed retreat.
“One is to provide more public access for recreational use of beaches," he said. "The second is to provide restoration opportunities for wildlife habitat. And the third is to provide a resilient landscape so the beach can respond to changes in sea level."
Managed retreat isn’t a new idea. A similar program was proposed in the State House after the blizzard of 1978. And, more recently, other states like New York and Rhode Island have experimented with it. Clarke said Massachusetts “could do more work” to catch up with other states.
Just last week, Gov. Charlie Baker was in Scituate announcing legislation that would designate $300 million to address climate change. On a bitterly cold day, he stood in front of the lighthouse, steps from homes hit hard by the storms, but his proposal doesn't prioritize managed retreat or a buy-back program. He wants cities and towns to come up with their own plans.
“Look, I’m not going to presuppose what any community wants to do to deal with their vulnerability issues,” Baker said. “If that's something that people in the community want part of their plan to be, then obviously that's something we will pursue.”
Some people like the idea of managed retreat. It’s voluntary, and gives property owners more options in the face of repeated damage. But others are more cautious.
The cost of flood insurance makes coastal buyers more aware of the risks of rising sea levels, said Ryan Castle, head of Cape Cod and Islands Association of Realtors. But, he added, it hasn’t deterred them. There’s still a shortage of housing on the Cape.
Nonetheless, the recent storms have worried him, and he’s been talking to colleagues in other states to understand the different approaches.
He thinks that improving building codes and adjusting zoning regulations would help. But, when it comes to managed retreat, Castle said he worries that it could create fiscal problems for coastal towns, washing away millions in property taxes from expensive beachfront homes. He posed his concerns as a question: “We’re going to raise your taxes to bail out these wealthy property owners and then take these expensive properties off the tax roll?”
But Jack Clarke of Mass Audubon said one thing isn’t a question: the sea level is rising and we have to respond somehow. Otherwise, he said, we risk a forced retreat.