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Driven by climate change, Orleans nears completion of new Nauset Beach parking lot

Eve Zuckoff
A sign outside the newly developed parking lot welcomes visitors in.

The town of Orleans has almost completed a $4 million project to build a new parking lot for Nauset Beach — farther from the ocean from the lot it will replace. The project is a costly response to the growing pressures of climate change.

Erosion, sea level rise, and more intense and frequent storms have threatened the original lot, which has shrunk in recent years to hold about 500 parking spaces, a beach administration building, and a gazebo, prompting the town to develop a managed retreat plan.

The new lot, which town officials say is about 90 percent finished, is being built up the hill from the original. At a higher elevation, farther inland, town officials hope it’s useful — and protected — for decades to come.

Tom Daley, director of the Orleans Department of Public Works, said experts with a coastal engineering firm called the Woods Hole Group suggested the town transition to the new lot over a 20-year period, given the rate of erosion.

“What they found was that from the mid 1800s to 1992, the beach was moving westward two-and-a-half feet per year,” Daley said. “From 1992 to 2015, the beach was moving westward [at a rate of] 12 feet per year.”

But those averages don’t tell the whole story. At any point, a major storm could rip another 40, 60, or 80 feet out of the dune. This managed retreat plan is a proactive approach to climate threats. Town officials said they decided it would be best to relocate before it’s too late.

“Mother Nature, at the end of the day, is going to win,” said Town Administrator John Kelly. “So by moving up the hill in a slow transition, we can maintain the beach to the extent possible and do it in both a fiscally responsible manner and an environmentally sensitive manner, as well.”

Starting Memorial Day, the town hopes Nauset Beach visitors will be able to use both parking lots, which together contain 750 spots. When the original lot is no longer usable, Kelly said, the town will have to explore building other parking lots elsewhere in town and starting busing people to and from the beach.

“A town like ours, where we have 53 miles of shoreline, we're always dealing with Mother Nature,” he said. “So the foresight in something like this is very important.”