Heading east on Surf Drive in Falmouth, a postcard-ready vista unfolds: a mile-and-a-half-long stretch of sandy beach with narrow dunes, osprey nests, the Shining Sea Bike Path, and the landmark town bathhouse that’s survived every hurricane since 1930.
The road is just a few feet above sea level, and it’s often crammed with cars crawling at 10 miles an hour filled with tourists enjoying the view.
And it’s not just a beach. There’s also a neighborhood.
“It's very special people who live here,” said Henry Herrmann, a Surf Drive resident since 1986.
Surf Drive is also a barrier beach, protecting everything behind it, including a salt marsh and homes, including Herrmann’s modest, one-story house.
“No matter whether I was poverty stricken or won the lottery, I wouldn't want to live anywhere else in the world,” he said.
Surf Drive in Falmouth is recognized as one of the town’s prettiest and most iconic shorelines, but climate change has made it vulnerable. It’s increasingly beset by storms, erosion, and flooding, meaning the town will likely have to do a lot more work in terms of upkeep and repair.
With that in mind, Falmouth’s Coastal Action Resiliency Committee (CRAC) received a $75,000 grant from the state’s Municipal Vulnerability Preparedness Program (MVP) to study the area’s vulnerabilities and to plan for an uncertain future.
It’s part of an effort to decide how much money the town is willing and able to devote to saving coastal roads. And it’s representative of a question coastal towns around the region may soon face.
At this early stage in the study, the town is weighing all kinds of changes to the area.
It’s considering elevating the road, or rerouting it, or even abandoning parts of it.
In the center of this effort to plan Surf Drive’s future lies a larger question: how far should the town go, and at what cost, to try to protect an iconic piece of Cape Cod, especially if it may ultimately be impossible to protect?
“We can't just live in a bubble,” said Melissa Freitag, vice-chair of CRAC. “Houses fall into the ocean all the time and services need to be shut off. And we don't want anyone to be endangered by any of that stuff. We're just looking at possibilities and trying to come up with solutions.”
In the next decade, this part of Falmouth is expected to see as many as 20 days of high tide flooding per year. By 2050, that number could rise to as many as 135 days per year, according to a report by federal officials.
The town is trying to avoid repetitions of 2012, when just a glancing blow from Hurricane Sandy inflicted costly damage to Surf Drive. Direct hits by major storms could be even more devastating to the road — and the town’s budget.
“Let's say hypothetically that a neighborhood, or street, or town, washes out, but there are still houses there,” Freitag said. “Whose responsibility is it to rebuild or to resettle? Does everyone in town rebuild that road? Is there a water main there? If the water has to be turned off, do we turn it back on for one house? Do we turn it back on for 50 houses? When does the town start to say enough is enough?”
Falmouth is at the forefront of trying to plan for climate change in an area that has not only beaches and municipal buildings, but neighborhoods.
It’s a complex undertaking, and that’s why the town has hired The Woods Hole Group, an engineering firm, to recommend solutions.
“Nobody is going to be mandating that everybody abandon their homes tomorrow, or everybody change how their house is designed tomorrow,” said Elise LeDuc, a coastal scientist at the firm.
“These are things that have to be thought about in the long term and have to be phased in in the long term.”
The town says it’s also taking into consideration the fact that seaside neighborhoods like Surf Drive are critical to tourism and the survival of local businesses.
Hard decisions will have to be made. And, LeDuc says, other communities will soon face similar choices.
“Every coastal town on Cape Cod -- in Massachusetts -- in the United States -- in the world is going to have to start thinking about impacts from sea level rise and climate change,” she said. “Towns that are planning for it are going to find they're much more resilient. They're going to be able to respond.”
Falmouth plans to host a workshop for town residents by the end of this year to present preliminary study findings and ask for community input.
Homeowner Henry Herrmann says he’ll be there with his Surf Drive neighbors.