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Amid Climate Change Threats, Cape Planners Ask: Is It Time to Retreat from the Coast?

A home on Salt Marsh Road in Sandwich is damaged beyond repair after a February storm.
Eve Zuckoff
A home on Salt Marsh Road in Sandwich is damaged beyond repair after a February storm.

Catastrophic damage from climate change threatens coastal homes all over the Cape, and Islands, prompting regional planners to eye managed coastal retreat options

Whenever a beachfront home goes on the market in Sandwich, it’s going to draw dozens of prospective buyers.

“So this is all private beach, which people just love. They want their privacy. They want their quietness and their calmness,” said Rich Lonstein, a realtor with Berkshire Hathaway, Robert Paul Properties. He specializes in beachfront homes. And this one on Salt Marsh Road, with four bedrooms, three baths, selling for the relative-bargain of $900,000, has attracted a lot of attention.

“A lot of houses in Sandwich, and as a matter of fact, on the Cape, they don't have a dock and a beach. They're going to have one or the other, but not both,” he said. “So that's what's really unique about this property.”

Another thing that’s unique about this property is that it was condemned, after high tides, erosion and relentless coastal flooding in a February storm tore it apart.

On a clear morning just a week after the storm, this house, like several on the road, was pitched forward over the dune, surrounded by “caution” signs.

“We can't go inside. And we've got to be real careful because, as you can see, the wires are down as well.”

Catastrophic damage from climate change threatens coastal homes all over the Cape, and Islands. And over the next 30 years, new research from a nonprofit research organization shows that the financial losses from flood damage alone could rise to $316 million per year for Massachusetts homeowners, a 36 percent increase from today. Taken together, these coastal threats have forced regional planners to begin quietly asking a once-unthinkable question: has the time come to retreat from the shoreline?

“I'm not saying I have the answers because, you know, you’re dealing with people's property,” said Dave DeConto, natural resources director for the town of Sandwich. The question of retreat, he said, is a question about other issues, too.

“Is it right to not allow someone to build back in an area that they've had a house for [significant] time? All those economic and social issues have to be looked at,” he said. “But there has to be a long-range plan, and I'm afraid retreat is going to have to be in the mix.”

Towns that adopt a managed retreat strategy could work with homeowners to leave their properties over the course of the next 30-odd years. Those who choose to accept would get a buyout, and their properties would be cleared to restore a natural buffer that enables coastal habitats to migrate inland as the shoreline erodes.

“I think towns with significant coastlines are starting to look at the writing on the wall and say, ‘We need to come up with a plan,’” said Elise LeDuc, a scientist with the Woods Hole Group, a coastal engineering firm that helps towns and homeowners evaluate their options for dealing with rising waters.

When it comes to homes and infrastructure, she said, communities can choose to adapt, accommodate, or retreat. “You start talking about, ‘Well, can we adapt where we've actually placed this asset? Could we relocate a roadway slightly farther inland? Could we relocate our building from the seaward end of a property to the landward end of the property?’”

The Woods Hole Group is helping the town of Falmouth finalize a retreat plan for the Surf Drive area. And the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown is working with the four outer Cape towns to develop a joint coastal management plan.

But Mark Borelli, a coastal geologist with the non-profit organization, said these projects are complicated by uncomfortable conversations.

“One of the biggest revenue streams in any town is property tax. Well, guess which row of houses has the highest property tax in every single coastal town in the world? The ones that are right on the water,” he said. “So towns reasonably have a very practical view of, ‘Oh geez, if we let these houses go, there goes our property tax. There goes our revenue stream. There goes all the other things we want to do as a town.’”

Another important aspect of managed retreat is the emotional cost: asking people to leave a beloved home in which they’ve invested not only their finances but their dreams of the future.

Still, Borelli said, the region is already on a path that makes many of those homes indefensible.

“The worst case scenarios right now for sea level rise by the end of this century is six to eight feet by 2100,” he said. “That is literally, to my mind, unimaginable.”

That’s the future that’s out there, whether local communities are ready, or not.

But until then, realtor Rich Lonstein is still looking for a new owner for that beach property in Sandwich. The teetering house was torn down this week, but with three offers now on the table, he expects a new one to go up in its place.

The aftermath on Salt Marsh Road after a home crippled by a February storm is demolished.
Rich Lonstein
The aftermath on Salt Marsh Road after a home crippled by a February storm is demolished.

Eve Zuckoff covers the environment and human impacts of climate change for CAI.