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Storm-Lashed Cape Is A Fragile Environment

Coastline erosion threatens human development, which in turn interferes with natural rebuilding processes

By Elizabeth RossStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 31, 1992


HIGH above Cape Cod's Ballston Beach on a hill overlooking the Atlantic Ocean sits a boarded-up summer cottage. Despite its solid appearance and its well-kept yard, the lone cottage looks fragile as it overlooks an eroded beach area below.

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Down at beach level, a large breach interrupts the natural barrier dune lining the shore. The result of a fierce northeasterly storm earlier this month, the gap is just one example of the storm's impact here on Massachusetts's Cape Cod.

Frank Ackerman, chief of interpretation and cultural resources for the Cape Cod National Seashore, surveys the beach erosion and the cottage on the hill.

Although this cottage is not currently at risk, homeowners don't always understand the consequences of living so close to the coast, Mr. Ackerman says.

"If we don't keep up with the inevitable deterioration with these man-made things, pretty soon they fall to pieces, and they actually may fly to pieces," he says.

Cape Cod, the long arm of land jutting out from the New England coastline that draws thousands of tourists every summer, has experienced its share of coastal damage over the years. Although the recent winter storm left minimal property damage here, Cape Cod landowners and environmentalists find themselves revisiting some new and old conservation issues of this changing natural environment.

Last year, the Cape was hit with Hurricane Bob in August followed by an unnamed coastal storm only two months later. In those storms, boats were smashed along beaches, basements were flooded, and residents were without power for several days.

The northeasterly storm this month produced waves as high as 20 feet and winds gusting up to 70 miles an hour. Many of the region's beaches, marshes, and waterways were washed out while residents coped with power outages and flooding. Docks, boardwalks, summer cottages, and other coastal structures along the Cape's shorelines were damaged or swept out to sea.

In the wake of these three coastal storms in just 16 months, conservationists, residents, and business owners find themselves reassessing the pros and cons of coastal development in this resort region.

"People have become very aware of the issues concerning both the environment and the economy. Both of them have to work in concert with each other," says Pamela Rubinoff, Cape Cod regional coordinator for the state's Coastal Zone Management office.

But the human battle against nature continues to be a part of Cape Cod life. Residents try to construct sea walls or jetties to protect their coastal homes from storms, while conservationists say these barriers threaten the ocean's beach-rebuilding process. In addition, paved roads and buildings that are constructed precariously close to the shore do not always withstand coastal storms and can interfere with dune rebuilding.

As an example, Ackerman points to a historical building in North Truro, built in 1907 as a small tourist hotel. Called the Highland House and listed in the National Register of Historic Places, the building was frequented early in the century by city dwellers who visited the Cape in the summer to take in the cool breezes. But the poorly constructed building, which stands right in the path of the outer Cape's high coastal winds, continues to be battered by storms. In this month's storm, a portion of the b uilding's roof flew off.

MEANWHILE, the town of Truro grapples with the dilemma of whether to rebuild the historic structure or to repair only essential elements in order to preserve the hotel's historical flavor.