Duxbury Beach suffered through a series of gales last March, and the strain was too much for her protective seawall. Sections of it collapsed, and emergency repairs had to be made in advance of a follow-up storm.
These repairs are of the temporary sort, and the seawall as it stands now won’t stand long. A new wall will eventually have to be put in.
The repairs will be expensive, and the replacement will be more expensive. If they don’t occur, houses will fall into the sea and the coastline will erode away to a memory.
Who pays for the wall, how much they pay and who is responsible for repairs… that remains to be seen. It will most likely involve some court-type activity.
Hanging over the whole issue are the questions of whether people should live so close to the sea, whether 15,000 people should have to build a wall to protect 190 houses, whether rising sea levels make a wall useless and whether delaying seawall repairs until the wall collapses frees the town from their mandated repair work.
Duxbury Beach, partially pictured above, is a residential area of 191 houses. I grew up there, still have family there, just so you know.
Many people from Duxbury Proper mistakenly think it is a part of Marshfield. Nope. From where the seawall in question begins, Duxbury runs about a half-mile to the Marshfield line.
It is lagely populated by seasonal folk, although many of the former cottages are gentrifying away from their Irish Riviera roots. It is by far Duxbury’s emptiest neighborhood from Labor Day until July (and most likely all year), and to my knowledge is Duxbury’s only seasonal neighborhood.
While the houses are not King Caesar-style mansions, the Atlantic frontage drives up the property values. The neighborhood kicks almost 2 million smackers back to Duxbury in property taxes.
Residents consume town services mostly for 2 months a year, and there is barely a need to send a school bus there. For the most part, they are invisible cash cows… but when they get attention, it tends to be Destruction Porn coverage from the local news of a bad nor’easter.
Habitation there would not be possible without the seawall. Memories of people and property being swept into the sea by the 1938 Great New England Hurricane were fresh on the mind as the sea walls of Massachusetts were being built in the 1940s and 1950s.
Duxbury finished their wall in 1954, and it runs from the south end of Ocean Road South to a small gap (the gap is from people who declined the $500 buy-in back in 1954) before the sea wall in Green Harbor. Before the US Army Corps of Engineers concrete seawall went in (busy work for WWII vets, an old schooler tells me), there was a wooden seawall made of telephone poles. Aside from that, Duxbury Beach relies on dunes.
The seawall held up well enough for 64 years, doing her repel-the-waves/stop-the-erosion thing… but the same thing that took down the walls of Constantinople took down the wall at Duxbury.
The Turks didn’t use one big shot from a cannon to take down the walls of Constantinople, they instead used repeated, focused shots.
Likewise, the walls in Duxbury didn’t collapse under the pressure of a single Hawaii Five-O type wave, they were knocked down over 64 years of inexorable 3 to 8 foot surf.
Much like when you pile straw upon a camel or when you nag at a soon-to-be ex-spouse long enough, the end usually comes via what would otherwise seem to be an innocuous incident.
That piece of straw shouldn’t have broken the camel’s back, but it did. Similarly, the seawall in Duxbury has stood up to far worse surf than it saw in the storms of 2018, but when last March turned stormy… sha-doobie, Shattered.
Neither the Turks nor Duxbury thought to put rebar in their walls, but that’s something we can circle back to in a little while.
Rebar was first used in the 1500s, so the Byzantines have an excuse for the walls of Constantinople (which was Turkish by 1453). Duxbury, almost exactly 500 years later, just threw up a shoddy wall.
Duxbury will pay 5 million and change to repair 750 feet of damaged seawall, and eventually around $6000 a foot for about a half mile of replacement seawall.
It should be high-end stuff. If a crumbly seawall lasts 64 years, a good one-even with rising sea levels and more frequent storms figured in- should last longer.
While it is never fun to ante up for a costly piece of infrastructure, the wall they put in next should still be standing when Ivanka Trump’s great-great-grandchildren are thinking about entering politics, if it is built properly.
That the town may still be paying off the wall while these future Trumps are running around is the basis of the anti-wall arguments. If that argument is accepted, the question becomes “Are those payments going to be worth it?”
“Worth it” is a broad area that ranges from “Will the wall hold up?” to “How will the wall benefit the town?” to ” No one should be living there anyway?” to “Neighbors should help neighbors” to whether Duxbury could or should disincorporate the troublesome beach neighborhood.
I will leave questions of the wall’s durability to people more skilled in engineering than myself. I spent most of my high school physics class looking at legs, and it was all downhill after that.
“No one should be living there” is cancelled out by “Too late. Someone is living there,” while the helpful neighbor idea can easily be viewed as “Here’s some help, neighbor… Move somewhere else.”
Disincorporation is the concept of Duxbury washing their hands of the beach neighborhood. They no longer accept taxes and no longer offer town services. It would be similar to what the Chinese did with the Walled City of Kowloon.
It would be a complicated legal matter, as not one inch of Massachusetts territory is unincorporated. Everything here is bound to some sort of Municipal Corporation.
One of my people tells me that a town or even a village could be disincorporated only in Vermont, but it would have to involve either:
A) some sort of Roanoke/Salem’s Lot-style disaster that suddenly depopulates the area, or
B) a Centralia/Silent Hill town-toxifying chemical situation, or
C) a Quabbin Reservoir situation where people will die of thirst if the towns are not taken by the state and flooded.
I should add that the man who told me this is in prison, but his logic is sound.
Washing their hands of a soggy beach neighborhood would establish Duxbury’s northern beach border at the gates of Duxbury Beach Park. Everything between that and Marshfield would be no man’s land… unless Duxbury Beach could go free agent and perhaps sign with Marshfield.
Otherwise, Duxbury Beach would quickly devolve into a Road Warrior sort of lawless chaos until the houses fell into the sea.
“Houses falling into the sea” is why Duxbury can’t disincorporate. Imagine, as the barrier beach decays, telling millionaires on Powder Point and Washington Street that construction debris will be washing into their yards for the next 700 years… should go well, yeah.
Avoiding that means disincorporating the people instead of the land. That means buying out 191 prime oceanfront properties.
This isn’t 1950, when you could buy 50 of the shanties for $25,000. Those visions of a Summer of ’42 cottage neighborhood are no longer valid. It’s why the ability of a single entity to buy and sell entire towns is limited to the bank in Monopoly.
Buying out the residents would cripple the town for a generation, and that would only be after 191 costly legal battles and before 191 costly demolitions.
You’d also be saying au revoir to two million a year in taxes, but it gets worse.
Duxbury Beach is a barrier beach. Her job is not just to support the houses of her residents, but to protect the houses of the residents of Duxbury Proper.
If the residents are forced out and their homes are demolished due to a desire to avoid building a seawall, you now have a flat beach- below sea level in some places- with 100 yards of eroding hill and no dunes.
Dunes are fine protection from storm waves, to a point. They work, with ever-ongoing maintenance and restoration, at the central and southern parts of Duxbury Beach. Even then, they get washed over and the beach is breached during bad enough storms.
Keep in mind, Duxbury Beach is divided by a line that only true storm geeks recognize. If you look across Cape Cod Bay from Duxbury on a clear day, you can see the tip of Provincetown. It almost looks like a mirage, but it’s real enough.
From the Duxbury vantage point, storm waves coming in from the Atlantic either come from the right or the left of Provincetown. From the right, any wave began after Cape Cod, which is Duxbury Beach’s barrier beach. From the left, they are coming in from the open ocean, unobstructed, and they hit the beach with the force, like Obi. We’re talking monster truck force, perhaps double what is hitting at the other end of the beach.
Guess where the cutoff point is? Right around where the seawall starts on Duxbury Beach. Northern Duxbury Beach gets far worse surf than southern Duxbury Beach, which is odd because they are the same beach. A good nor’easter would make quick work of any dune laid down on the northern end of Duxbury Beach.
The part of Duxbury Beach that has an armored seawall is the part of Duxbury Beach that needs an armored seawall.
The anti-wall people quickly find themselves in a Catch 22 situation.
They seek to avoid paying for a wall, so they bankrupt the town to buy out and demolish the houses on the beach.
Dunes don’t protect the town well enough. Dune depletion kicks in, as sand that would normally be washed down southward into the dunes after hitting the seawall is instead pushed ashore onto Ocean Road North, Ocean Road South and Gurnet Road.
The annual dune reparations would have to be preceded by annual repairs on the road leading out to the dune. Meanwhile, the barrier beach erodes.
Houses of more influential town residents in Duxbury Proper begin to get direct ocean effects as the barrier beach erodes away. The multi-million dollar high school complex is imperiled.
Duxbury is then left with one choice, the one they passed on before they got into this mess… build a wall. Only this time, they are doing it without $2 million a year in tax money.
If the disincorporation people are listened to and the town Pontius Pilates their hands of the beach village, they may not even have a viable beach to build the wall on once the disincorporated beach starts eroding… meaning that they spend a decade securing easements and operating heavy equipment in the wealthy people’s yards on Powder Point Road/King Casear Road and off Washington Street.
I don’t see that going well.
Simply put, Duxbury needs to build this wall. It sucks, but every other option they have sucks harder.
Disincorporating the beach neighborhood would be a penny-wise, pound-foolish act of financial masochism. It would be the equivalent of punching the gift horse in the mouth.
There is no way that Duxbury avoids building a new seawall. The only other options leave them bankrupt… or bailing out Washington Street every full moon high tide.
They should not only build a wall, they should build a really nice one. They should even look into an artificial reef offshore, but one thing at a time.
The whole seawall cost quandary is very much like that old joke about why divorce costs so much…
Because it’s worth it.