The repeated damage caused by intensifying storms and coastal erosion is an issue facing many towns across the Cape region. Last week, Sandwich voters said it's worth $2 million to rebuild the town's marquee structure, even without any assurances about how long it'll last, or how well it'll hold up to the next storm.
“It has become an icon of the town,” says Dave DeConto, the natural resources director. “If you look at anything online about Sandwich, the first thing that comes up is the boardwalk.”
Almost anyone you ask in town will tell you the same thing, will use that exact same word: iconic.
The boardwalk is a long wooden footbridge that stretches more than a thousand feet, all the way across the marsh and down to the beach. It was first built in the late 1870s, and was rebuilt—largely by volunteers—in the early ’90s.
“As a kid growing up here, the big thing here is to come at high tide and jump off the bridge,” DeConto says. “There’s no signs that say you cannot jump off the bridge. Unlike other places. Because it’s such a right of passage here.”
But the boardwalk was badly damaged over the winter, especially by intense back-to-back storms in March. A big section of the middle is now a gaping hole, and much of the rest looks almost wavy.
“Each and every year, and it seems like it’s been more frequent the past five years, we’ve had issues with the boardwalk, and major storms have damaged the boardwalk and we have to close it for a period of time,” says Paul Tilton, the town engineer. “And we have lot of pressure to get that ready for summer season obviously.”
Just to get it patched and open for the 2018 summer season, Town Manager Bud Dunham says it will cost Sandwich about $76,000 to repair the middle section, and another $10,000 for the stairs down to the beach.
But even Dale Davies, the local independent contractor who has been rebuilding the stairs, says he honestly doesn’t believe the brand new stairs (which that he’s built largely out of wood he salvaged from the damaged boardwalk) will be strong enough to survive next winter’s storms.
“I believe that this is just a stopgap measure to get people on the beach for the summer,” Davies says.
Tilton, the town engineer, says it is just a stopgap. And, he says, the existing boardwalk has now “outlived its useful life.” Stopgap fixes aren’t sustainable anymore.
Which is why the town just asked residents to spend $2 million to completely rebuild it, in a way that’s more resilient to rising sea levels and more frequent storms.
“One thing we’re doing, a lot of towns are doing now, is looking at resilient engineering or design,” Tilton says. “And that takes a look at how do we better protect our natural resources? And you also want to minimize the impact to the environment as well.”
As far as the boardwalk goes, Tilton says, that might mean using more stainless steel, and helical piles,which would screw the boardwalk deep into the ground. “So you won’t have uplifting, which is what we’ve seen at the boardwalk now. The boardwalk is lifted up in the air by over a foot in certain areas. That’s why you have that wavy look to it. So with those piles it will be anchored in and able to withstand severe storms.”
That’s the goal. To engineer it in such a way that Sandwich—he hopes—won’t have to spend tens of thousands to repair it every spring.
Bud Dunham, the long-time Town Manager, is the one who has to think about the bills. “I would say, just as a Town Manager, you start to ask yourself, this is just an example, if we’ve had to replace the beach walkover stairs four times in the last six years, is someone up above trying to tell us something? That hey, maybe you shouldn’t be spending $100,000 each year replacing it?”
For now, there’s no real conversation in town about not repairing the boardwalk. Instead, the debate has been over the cost of the long-term fix.
To be able to spend that $2 million for a brand new structure, Dunham and the Board of Selectmen had to go to the voters for approval, first at Town Meeting, and then in the town-wide election.
At Town Meeting, the boardwalk funding request—which was bundled together with another $6 million intended for road and other infrastructure repairs—was the most controversial item of the night, debated for over an hour.
And though it passed, there was one question that got asked that town officials have no real way to answer: what kind of assurances taxpayers get for the $2 million.
It’s something Dunham asks himself all the time, as Town Manager, as the one in charge of spending public money wisely.
“That’s hard,” he says. “When you can’t have assurance of the work that you do is going to be there in the future.”
That the $2 million is going to be worth it.
“I think most people in town would say it is worth it. If it buys us like you know 10 to 20 years, it’s worth it. If it buys us 3 years, I think we’d all scratch our heads and say probably not, unfortunately.”
Tilton, the engineer, says he is hopeful Sandwich will be able to get 20 or 30 years out of a newly-designed boardwalk. And that for now, he believes it is still worth it—and still fiscally responsible—to spend that money. The boardwalk is too valuable an asset for the town to let it go.
In so many ways.
“You know, sometimes it’s a just good getaway,” Tilton says. “It’s sort of a stress reliever. You want to get away from all the issues you have, you walk down to the boardwalk and kinda set your mind straight, and you know, you’re good for the rest of the day. Sometimes I do that myself.”
And it’s hard to put a price on that. But in Sandwich, now they have to.
Samantha Fields is a reporting fellow with the GroundTruth project, stationed at WCAI.