When Being Green Can Cost You Your Home

By Jessica Bosari

House on bluffWe own a home along the coastal bluffs of Plymouth, Massachusetts. Like many in this area, we fell in love with the sweeping views across Cape Cod Bay. We first laid eyes on this neighborhood in October 1999, and I’ll never forget the full pink moon and lavender grey sky near sunset. It’s like the moment I first set eyes on my husband. It just felt right. It was home.

When we purchased a home here, we knew we would need to install a seawall along the bottom of the nearly 200-foot high coastal embankment in front of the house. What we never anticipated was the resistance we would meet from “conservationists” in trying to do so. After all, we’re pretty sure a home collapsing and falling into the ocean is more environmentally damaging than a properly installed barrier.

Trees on bluffThe Erosion Problem
Estimates put the erosion rate on these coastal bluffs at 0.56 ft. loss per year. We’ve been here over ten years, and when you watch this happening over the seasons, you can’t understand how you could be losing so much so fast. When we looked more closely at the numbers, we found that the rate includes the horrific erosion occurring on nearby Nantucket Island, where one section loses 10-12 feet per year. So it’s not as bad as it seemed at first. Still, we were losing land and needed to do something about it.

Mother Nature’s Way
Coastal erosion is a natural process. The ocean giveth and the ocean taketh away. The right thing is to let the ocean deposit sand on the beaches and then take it away in the next storm. We agree wholeheartedly with that notion. No one can argue the environmentalist view that hard structure seawalls damage the coastline. They prevent proper sand migration and eventually cause additional erosion because the ocean can only take sand from underneath and in front of the seawall.

Our Need for Protection
However, without a structure at the base of the bluff in front of our home, the ocean would eventually take our home away. We struggled for years just to get the permits in place after countless meetings with a Conservation Commission staffed by laypersons that impose unreasonable conditions on the project. Instead of interpreting and enforcing the code that relates to our area, they question why we bother at all. They think we should abandon our homes. They think the sea will take it eventually anyway.

Undue Restrictions Made It Impossible
Even when we did finally gain approval for a temporary solution, a gabion basket revetment, they imposed unreasonable monitoring restrictions that never applied to anyone else. They wanted us to continually survey the erosion at the bluff, at a price tag of about $25,000. We simply couldn’t do it with our limited incomes. And because we could not afford to install the wall with those restrictions, our home value remained low. We tried to sell the home only to have town officials answer the inquiries of potential buyers, saying that our home was going to fall in the ocean. Eventually, we lost the home because the exorbitant costs of all we went through put us into bankruptcy.

Barrier wallA Second Chance
We got lucky, though. A friend bought another house along the bluff at auction and we will be buying it from him. Here, we’ve gone through the hoops again, but armed with the knowledge of how the system works, we did much better. Not only did we get our permits more quickly, we secured permission to install a new technology that offers a permanent solution to our problem.

Finding the Balance
The environmental powers that be have been so soured by hard solutions such as seawalls that at first, they would not open their eyes to the possibility of a hard structure that does not stop sand migration. Our only other option would have been the gabion basket revetment that costs tens of thousands in materials and weeks to install. Gabions are temporary solutions, expected to last 15 years or so. It’s a monumental undertaking, and we could not imagine rebuilding a revetment that requires so much manual labor every 15 years.

We kept up the fight, however, and eventually gained permission for a new seawall technology that allows sand to migrate naturally. But we still have a bad taste in our mouths for the harrowing experience.

Change Needed
The town of Plymouth completed an analysis that predicts several properties 100 feet or higher along the bluff are in jeopardy of coastal erosion. They say that one of these homes may be lost within one to five years. Another home may be lost within six to 10 years, and 26 homes within 60 years. What bothers us most about these numbers is that no home has ever collapsed down the slope. If the Town doesn’t loosen its unrelenting grip on coastal homeowners, however, those homes may indeed be lost.

My husband and I have iron wills, and that’s exactly what you need to combat the excessive rules and restrictions placed on coastal homeowners. Many wonder why we didn’t get out and find another affordable housing option after all we have been through. To us, that’s not the point. We’re not Rockefellers, so we can’t afford some of the extreme provisions the Conservation Commission imposes. Essentially, these folks are insuring that those with lower incomes will lose their homes and the wealthy will be the only ones who can afford to live along this beautiful coastline. We refused to be squeezed out. This is our house, our community and in our hearts, the only home we’ll ever know.

Jessica Bosari writes about green living and saving money at AffordableHousingForRent.com, a site dedicated to helping families find affordable housing. If you would like to see and learn more about her seawall adventure (not to mention some harrowing video footage!) check out her Blog from the Edge!

9 Responses »

  1. So…. what, pray tell, is this “new technology”, this “hard structure that does not stop sand migration”? Enquiring minds need to know, in case it would apply to our (very similar) situation. Thanks!

    • Hi Betsey,

      It is called an “Earth Rib Module” system. The author of this blog actually has a blog about it that has many more pictures and videos which you can access at http://www.blogfromtheedge.com/. She goes into greater detail there. It’s all very interesting and I look forward to following up and seeing how the structure does for them. If you end up using it or learning more, I would also love to hear what you have to say about it as well!

      Thanks!

      Trish

  2. That is an unfortunate situation for sure. The thing is, I can see that years ago, structures were built in places without proper knowledge of the geological processes that could eventually affect those structures and unfortunately, many people are still ignorant of them and continue to buy structures in those areas. I think that with the knowledge we have now, if we know a building is going to be negatively impacted by natural erosion, then when it gets to that point, the property should be condemned and those natural processes are allowed to claim the land. It has been shown time and time again that preventing erosion in one area simply pushes it somewhere else. To your neighbor’s property? To the public park up the street? Buyer beware and buyer be educated. Don’t buy a home where you’re having to build anything to keep back the river/ocean/hill. Work with the natural world, not against it. Just my two cents.

  3. That’s the beauty of this revetment. If you look at the blocks in the picture, you can see the sloped inner face. The angle of that slope directs wave action into the air, so the force does not eat away at the wall or sand supporting it. It doesn’t take sand from the beaches on either side. Instead it nourishes the beach in front of our home and the beaches of our neighbors. When the force of the wave dissipates upward, the sand carried by the wave falls back down to the beach, allowing nature to nourish the beach as intended. The system has proven itself several times in tests. Still, people have such a hard time believing it as evidenced by the last two commenters. Having seen footage, photos, and studies of these units, I am confident I will be able to send you some convincing documentation post nor’easter season. At that time of year, a tradition seawall would show scouring. We should see sand build up instead.

  4. Sad story indeed, but how does the title, “When Being Green Can Cost You Your Home,” apply to the situation? And you acknowledge the “conservationists” have a valid point in opposing the retaining wall, so the “green” of conservation isn’t even a true issue. The real point of your situation was staffers at the Coastal Commission were an impediment to doing what you believed was allowable within the regulations. Architect Bill Reed with Integrative Design Collarborative believes in the integration of development into the natural systems present at the project site. In his lectures he often tells a story of a project that would have developed an extraordinary natural setting into a resort. But the project was stopped because it was found to have a history of significant seismic activity. This is the type of thinking we need to have to build in appropriate locations instead of imposing our will on the land. Remeber, Nature always bats last.

  5. If you read the good book you wouldn’t build [or buy] your house on sand, especially not that much sand exposed to he ocean, without doing proper research first. It must surely occur to you that that sand bluff didn’t start out like that? If you stop it from eroding at the same rate as on each side, it will end up as a headland. How long to sandy headlands last. And you headland, whilst protecting you and those updrift will put at risk your downdrift neighbours. You just can’t solve these problems on a property boundary basis – you have to looke at the beach system as a whole, from source to sink.

    I’ve been in this business since 1974 and did my masters on Gabions for Wave Protection and Invented the Seabee system – (5kg to 50tons) by 1977. In the late 1980s I toured Cape Cod & New England with a Mr GG Campbell from Boston looking for suitable sites for my man-handleable seawall system, used in USA, Australia, UK, Kuwait etc for over 30 years. However, sometimes I won’t sell. In Sydney & NSW in cases like this we’ve done 2 things – piled the house foundations so that the sand can come and go beneath the house [stable beaches with seasonal/storm driven sand movement or put the building on skids so that we can tow it away from the scarp edge.

    To see the Seabee system, look up Rada Tilly (Argentina), Cronulla Beach (NSW) or Garden Island (Sydney) and Blackpool South Shore. I also have 3 [Four} gabion revetment Seawalls at Balmoral Beach [1976], Galvin Park & Towradgi Beach [1979] and two seawall toe protection gabion revetments [Bondi Beach 1986, Cronulla Seawall 1985] to my name. Cronulla and Balmoral were at beaches subject to long term loss and scheduled for re-nourishment. The Nourishment at Cronulla never repeated after 1980 and the mattresses were badly damaged in a storm in 2007.

    On Sydney’s Collary beach I was asked to provide seawall protection to a number of home owners, and encountered similar problems to those you describe. After 18months hassle, I asked my clients what they wanted – a seawall to protect their garden, or a house that wouldn’t fall into the sea. So we did a fine piled foundation to underpin the house. But these dunes are only about 6-7m [20-24ft] high. the design was based on surviving a severe storm erosion of the dunes. But essentially a semi contained beach subject to seasonal shift from one end to the other.

    If the house is on a long term eroding cost, either make it removable or just enjoy it while it lasts.

    Whilst you are on Google Earth go look at Agoo Spit in North Luzon, The Philippines. I was asked by Pres. Marcos’ advisers what to do about a property he was building on a sandy headland, which they realised was eroding. I pleaded with them not to build a seawall or groyne as it would destabilise 20miles of coast and they would have to build them everywhere, but to relocate to the accreting coast. Today there must be near a hundred, and the accreting coast is eroding as the sand supply is drying up.

    Anyway, enjoy your life on the sandy cliff-top, but make sure you’ve somewhere else to go when your time is up.

    What stops these units from sinking into the sand? Are there any published reports? Please keep us posted with photos.

  6. Love the discussion & understand the problem well as we’ve vacationed in Nantucket for more than 25 years. Already sent link to this blog over to my realtor there as they need this on both ends of the island. Madaket has been loosing houses for years (west end of the island) and Sconset has similar cliffs and lots of erosion. They just completed moving the lighthouse maybe 100 ft for this very problem. Your solution would have been better.

  7. Hi Jessica, Ive read your article and also looked at the concrete blocks you used. Sure, they do appear like having an intersting build-in mechanism allowing the cross movement of beach sand along the face. However, this is only there to satisfy the environmentalists. For the cliff face not to fail there are other mechanisms that should be prevented from taking place. You mention erosion of the sand face (due to wave attack). This is correct, but the main mechanism is water setup combined with large waves that will saturate the entire slope and cause it to collapse. I want to suggest that you speak to a coastal engineer with geotechnical background (who can holistically look at your situation) to investigate this for you and to tell you if, and under what conditions, you will get collapse (or partial collapse) of the slope and also if you will encounter those conditions or not. This neednt be an expensive study at all and if you find the right person he will give you valueble info for free. You can email me and I may be able to give you some advice as I happen to be a coastal engineer.

  8. Please contact me as my family and I are going through this same situation and need a good backing of knowledge to save our home

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