Perilous wave of the future

As sea walls along the coast disintegrate, towns have little cash to help turn the tide

By Matt Carroll
Globe Staff / April 3, 2011

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Marshfield has about 2 1/2 miles of sea walls, many of which are crumbling, and the long-deferred bill is coming due. It will be hefty.

A state report issued 18 months ago put the cost of repairing Marshfield sea walls that are in fair to failing condition at $17 million. A ballpark estimate by the town’s superintendent of public works put the cost of replacing and repairing sea walls, plus other beach work, well north of $20 million.

“I probably have about one-third to one-half of the sea walls in poor condition and they should be replaced,’’ said the superintendent, David E. Carriere. “The balance need some sort of repair or rehabilitation.’’

For the past four years, he has routinely asked Town Meeting for $1 million for proactive maintenance work on sea walls; just as routinely, he has received $250,000. (Other money has been appropriated after sea walls have failed.)

Up and down the South Shore, communities are lined with sea walls that protect thousands of homes, miles of vital roadways, and untold amounts of utilities. But they are showing their age and lack of maintenance. While records are incomplete, about two-thirds are at least five decades old — the expected life of a sea wall.

The state report estimated that the cost for repairing sea walls south of Boston in fair to failing condition is about $90 million, with five communities facing costs of $10 million or more.

Heading the list is Scituate, where the $25 million estimate doesn’t reflect the effects of the Dec. 26 nor’easter that even damaged a sea wall that had been judged to be in good shape. Next on the list is Marshfield’s $17 million, $13 million in Hull, $12 million in Quincy, and $10 million in Plymouth.

Some local officials say the Massachusetts Coastal Infrastructure and Assessment Report is out of date, since the data were collected from 2006 to 2008. It doesn’t include events like last December’s storm, or repairs that have been performed recently in some towns, such as Marshfield.

But what is clear from the report and talks with town officials is that decades of neglect mean the problem is getting worse.

The state needs to make sea walls a priority, as roads are, with permanent funding as part of the annual capital plan, said retired state representative Frank M. Hynes of Marshfield, who chaired the committee that put together the report.

Neglecting upkeep until there is catastrophe, such as last December’s storm, is no way to treat infrastructure that protects thousands of people and millions of dollars in property, he said.

“We treat the coast as though we were an inland state, like Ohio or Nebraska,’’ said Hynes. When the report was issued, Hynes thought momentum was gathering in the Legislature, but the economic downturn derailed those efforts.

State officials defend their funding of sea wall repairs, and point to the $9 million spent statewide since 2004, with $3 million in South Shore towns. (Some costs for projects just starting were not included.) However, for the fiscal year that began last July, the figure for repairs is just $105,000.

The economy has slowed funding on sea walls, said Wendy Fox, spokeswoman for the Department of Conservation and Recreation, which issued the report. “That’s all the money that has been available,” she said.

The 2009 state report examined only sea walls owned by communities and the state, not those owned by private citizens or the federal government. The report estimated the total cost of repairs at some $600 million, and laid out a 20-year blueprint of spending about $30 million a year.

The report’s conclusion was sobering: “It is feared that without rehabilitation of these structures, a storm equivalent to the Blizzard of 1978 or Hurricane Bob . . . will cause incalculable damage to the coastline and upland areas of the Commonwealth.’’

In Scituate, last December’s storm didn’t reach that magnitude, but it damaged 400 homes, including the first and second floors of homes on cement pylons, designed to be above the ocean’s wrath.

Last month, the federal government denied aid to Scituate for the storm because damages didn’t reach the threshold that triggers the assistance. So the town is stuck with all cleanup and repair costs, including $1 million to completely rebuild the sea wall that failed.

“Sea walls are like the dam situation in inland communities,’’ said Scituate Town Administrator Patricia A. Vinchesi. Many of the town’s 5 miles of sea walls, most privately owned, were built in the 1930s. “It’s a huge issue that requires a lot of capital, and there are no resources to address them.’’

In recent years, Town Meeting did not set aside money for sea wall repairs, she said. But on April 11, Town Meeting will vote on $500,000 for a sea wall repair fund, $175,000 for work around Scituate Light, and $430,000 for a new pumper truck.

Duxbury, meanwhile, is a month or two from finishing a comprehensive survey of beach structures, including recommendations for work.

The town had one major sea wall rated poorly by the state — or rather, a lack of sea wall. A 345-foot sea wall apparently existed near Kentucky Avenue long ago but is gone now, the report said, and would cost at least $1 million to reconstruct.

A sand dune now stands in its place. But Peter Buttkus, director of public works, said a 100-year storm could push right over the dune, flooding houses and roads.

In Hull, fixing an aging, deteriorating sea wall in Point Allerton is not just about saving homes — it’s also to protect residents and a beloved public space, residents and Town Manager Philip E. Lemnios say.

While the estimated 900-foot sea wall protects about six homes perched on the water, directly behind them is a road where utilities are buried for another 1,000 homes. The sea wall was also a town common, a public way for beach lovers and fishermen.

Today, however, a chain-link fence prevents people from getting close to the wall, speaking to its increasing danger.

“If it fails, it could harm much more than these homes,’’ said Lemnios.

The vertical stone wall, built in the late 1800s, has had numerous repairs through the years. In the late 1990s, it was so damaged — and public money so limited — that five homeowners agreed to pay $60,000 each to strengthen it and build it 2 feet higher. But as storms continued to attack the wall, the state says it is now a top priority to fix and has hired a design firm to come up with a roughly $4 million solution. But there is little left in state coffers because of the budget crisis.

“We get terror-filled a few days before every storm,’’ said Gary Bloch, one of the people protected by the wall. “It is the uncertainty: How bad is it going to be?’’

Janet Gilmartin, another resident, agrees. “We always wonder if this is the storm that will unravel the sea wall.’’

Down the coast, in Marshfield, Jim Robinson knows the damage the sea can cause. His home on 4th Street is just a few lots from the water. Shingles blow off the house all the time. Salt rots his grill out every two or three years.

And then there is the fear that the sea walls will fail, Robinson said, as they have along Foster Avenue near Brook Street in the late ’90s, along Bay Avenue in 2005, and last spring near Constellation and Farragut roads.

Robinson wonders if more money should have been made available in past years for maintenance.

“I’m partially to blame,’’ said Robinson, who served two terms as a selectman in the mid-’80s, when the problems with the wall were relatively minor.

“I don’t think we paid close enough attention to it, and we had our heads in the sand,’’ he said. “Now Mother Nature is making us pay a price for that.’’

Marshfield is considering a betterment for those who live close to the walls. The controversial proposal would be paid 80 percent by the town and 20 percent by residents near the water.

About $2.1 million would be spent on sea walls along Surf Avenue, between Farragut and Constellation. Depending on the plan, the betterment could be shared by 99 to 175 homeowners, who would pay roughly $106 to $525 annually over 20 years. Borrowing the money would have to be approved by Town Meeting this month.

In an inspection one recent afternoon, Carriere pointed out the damage the ocean does to sea walls. Along Ocean Bluff, about six or seven years ago, stones weighing from 6 to 8 tons were neatly laid in an interlocking pattern in a gentle slope leading away from the sea wall. The revetment, as it’s called, was designed to absorb some of the energy of the waves and protect the sea wall.

But a series of nor’easters jumbled the stones, and even slammed some into the sea wall itself, turning pieces of supposed protection into a battering ram. Along Bay Avenue, a 10- to 15-foot chunk at the top of the sea wall was blown out by the Dec. 26 storm.

If $1 million had been approved for sea walls each year instead of $250,000, Carriere said, sections of wall that failed recently would probably have been repaired last year or the year before.

Along Constellation and Farragut, repair work is nearly complete. The new wall is 2 feet higher, about 6 inches wider at the top, and 4 to 6 feet wider in the footings.

It looks great, but it’s not cheap. Carriere estimated it costs roughly $2,500 for each linear foot of sea wall.

“The ocean is a very powerful thing,’’ he said.

Matt Carroll can be reached at Beth Daley and Steven Rosenberg of the Globe staff contributed to this article.