Most Plymouth oceanfront homeowners who love that multimillion-dollar view need the commitment and resources to protect their properties from escalating coastal erosion.
The viability of coastal living is the subject of much controversy these days. For those who live in oceanfront homes, there are measures they can take to extend the life of their properties. For how long, no one knows.
Erosion control firms perform restoration and protection work that can dramatically slow decay. New seawall and coastal-bank preservation technologies and a better understanding of damaging coastal weather at the federal, state, and local levels all aid in protecting homes along the ocean.
Yet even local land engineering companies hired to protect oceanfront homes admit that, over time, they are a weak match against the power of Mother Nature. For example, homeowners on Nameloc Drive in Cedarville, Manomet Avenue, and Manomet Point Road have been fighting for years to mitigate the effects of severe erosion.
Plymouth, like other coastal communities, faces sea-level rise and increased storm intensity. These forces tear into protective coastal banks and damage rock and geotextile-bag sea walls, explains Zach Basinski, project manager at Bracken Engineering in Plymouth.
Richard Vacca, Conservation Planner of Plymouth’s Conservation Commission, warns homeowners about their tenuous position.
“With the changing and intensifying weather, if you own, or want to own, a coastal property you must understand you are buying a place of impermanence,” Vacca says.
“In most local situations, don’t plan on giving the home to your grandkids,” he warns. “You buy it because you love it, not because you see it as a long-term investment. In this area, it’s likely that it might not survive a 30-year mortgage cycle.”
Land engineers in the business of protecting oceanfront homes are more optimistic.
“With all the technological improvements in preservation products over the last few years, if homeowners commit to our initial plan and regular maintenance, these homes will be around for many generations,” says Liam Delowery, head of Plymouth-based South Coast Creations. The excavation firm performs coastal protection work in the area.
South Coast Creations has been performing restoration work for over a decade. “We have been successful at slowing down a natural process that has been occurring for millions of years,” Delowery says. “We can’t assure homeowners how much time we have given them, but through our initial work and continuing maintenance, most homes will gain multi-generational living.”
Delowery points out that local lenders continue to make loans on oceanfront homes, which to him means they have faith in the durability of the structures. If proper measures are taken. “It’s like a roof; if you don’t maintain it, the roof will develop leaks and eventually collapse,” he says.
These days, few would deny the ecological challenge of living on the coast. The rising ocean is just one factor. Increasing rain intensity causes stormwater from the street to rush over and erode sloping coastal banks, which can destroy protective vegetative buffers and widen sandy, unforgiving “bald spots”.
Companies such as South Coast Creations and Plymouth-based Bracken Engineering work with homeowners, surveying property and preparing and presenting plans to Plymouth’s Conservation Commission. The commission, in turn, must approve any seaside plans for restructuring land, building protective barriers and vegetation, as well as well the positioning of buildings, septic systems, steps, and pools.
Vacca says the Conservation Commission tries to be fair to coastal homeowners while mandating that they take appropriate precautions and actions to protect their coastal banks and sea walls below. If their plans are approved, homeowners are issued an order of conditions, which stipulates steps to be taken. Once met, they are issued a certificate of compliance.
Erosion-control expenses along the water – including initial engineering field work, design, and permitting – range from $5,000 – $15,000, local firms report. Bluff repairs can cost between $3,000 and $30,000, depending on condition. Seawall repairs and new construction range from $5,000 to $50,0000 or more, depending on the style wall, what materials are required, and the wall’s length and height.
A major problem aiding and abetting erosion: Homeowners who clear their backyards of view-blocking trees and remove natural vegetation that’s meant to protect their coastal banks.
The town’s Conservation Commission specifies that only certain trees on a homeowner’s coastal bank can be removed near the top of the coastal bank.
We issue $50 fines for each infraction, but we are not traffic cops,” Vacca says. Oceanfront homeowners who fail to abide by state mandates and the town’s regulations will end up in court, he adds.
Some Plymouth oceanfront homes, however, sit up high, set safely back from the water, with solid, sloping vegetative buffers down to a strong seawall.
A few local homeowners have resorted to moving their houses away from the shoreline. That requires having enough land and money for such a project. On Ellisville and Oak Bluff roads in South Plymouth, two homeowners hired Gary Sylvester’s Building Movers and Excavators in Falmouth to perform the work. The large houses, each about 4,000 square feet, were built around 1970, Sylvester says. “One was L-shaped that we moved in two pieces,” he says. “A two-car garage and adjoining room, we moved separately, and, of course, reattached.”
Moving a house “is an expensive, but a good solution if a property owner has enough land and right topography,” Sylvester says. He is often asked by homeowners whether they need to move their belongings out before such a move. “I tell them no,” he says. “You don’t even need to pack the contents of your china cabinets unless it’s something very fragile and precious.”
But to perform stabilization work on a coastal bank and its sea wall, a property owner must hire a land engineering firm to survey the property, prepare a course of action, draft plans, obtain necessary permits, and go before the town for approval.
Rebuilding a rock seawall or stone revetment can only be performed if machinery can gain access to the beach in front of a home.
Another option is the use of geotextile sea bags, which are filled with sand and water using hydraulic equipment. Each bag weighs 5 to 7 tons. These bags can be built in layers, like a brick wall. “You can add levels to these walls at any time,” South Coast Creations’ Delowery says.
Oceanfront homes in Plymouth rarely go on the market. Typically, they pass from generation to generation within a family, Vacca says. But with the passage of time, those properties are shrinking. Who knows how long preservation and mitigation can hold off the ravages of climate change?
“These homes might have had 200 feet of backyard from the top of the coastal berm years ago, but now have, say, 10 or so feet,” Vacca says.
Keeping that multimillion-dollar view has its price.
Steven Feldman is a real estate agent for Keller Williams Realty, a renovator of Plymouth-area properties, and a former Boston journalist.
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