EASTHAM, Mass. (AP) — Noel Beyle is a self-styled eccentric. Whether it’s busking his own slim books of musings on Cape life, or hustling vintage postcards at the flea market, Beyle has never lived a 9-to-5 life.
A neatly lettered sign wryly proclaims that his home — two conjoined 1940s-era Army barracks — is a historic structure. Another dubs the squat, silver-shingled building “West Eastham Town Hall,” while a third advertises it as the location of the Viagra Oyster Company.
Beyle wears his trademark knit hat, frayed strands waggling and kinetic where his border collie chewed on it, both indoors and out. His eyes, magnified, swimming behind large, thick lenses, dart about, always looking for the humor in life.
But Beyle is dead serious about protecting the home he’s lived in for most of his life. For 20 years, he’s tried to stave off the inevitable, with various configurations of snow fencing intended to trap drifting sand and buffer the toe of the eroding bluff he lives on from the corrosive action of the sea.
After last winter’s massive erosion, he decided he had reached the end of the road.
Ten feet of his backyard, including a grassy hummock and knobby crabapple trees (all crawling with poison ivy) went over the cliff like a carpet slipping off a clothesline. It was time to build a big stone wall, something wealthier neighbors had resorted to years ago.
“Nothing works against a monster,” Beyle said, stoking the wood stove in his uninsulated home where the rafters are bare, except for the tightrope contrails of long-dead spiders. Fifty or so feet above the water, the new windows he recently installed shivered in the blast of wind that comes across Cape Cod Bay like a runaway train.
The “monster” Beyle referred to was last February’s storm, dubbed Nemo by some. Beyle prefers the Blizzard of ’13 because in his mind it was the twin of the infamous Blizzard of ’78.
Last year’s blizzard hit with hammer blows on barrier beaches, opening big holes in Chatham and Truro, and tearing away chunks of land the way a kid rips into a birthday cake. But it snuck up on the bay side of Eastham, just a silent surge of water that brushed aside the snow fencing and quietly sapped the vitality from Beyle’s protective bluff, hacking it off at the ankles.
The resulting slump of earth and vegetation was as inevitable and predictable as a cut tree dropping to the forest floor.
Back in 1948, Beyle’s father bought the cast-off, undersize lot for $600 and placed the two Army barracks on the site. Beyle said the home was once more than 70 feet from the edge, with a vine-snarled hummock that shielded it from the wind and the precipitous drop.
Although the original lot was small, it is now less than a quarter-acre, with no space for a conventional septic system and no room for retreat. As the land dropped away, big holes opened in the yard, like bites taken out of the landscape. When one yawned within 5 feet of the house, Beyle knew the game was up.
He has joined now the more than 90 property owners along Eastham’s bay side that have built stone sea walls, known as revetments. Chris Norgeot of Anchor Marine is building Beyle’s revetment along with another next door.
Approximately 70 more Eastham property owners are still holding out because they are either lucky enough to have plenty of land between them and oblivion, or they continue to use other methods such as fencing, sand bags, beach grass or other means to blunt the progress of erosion.
Others are ineligible to build revetments because they did not have a house on the land before 1978, when the state Wetlands Protection Act was implemented.
“It’s kind of the last thing that you can try,” said Greg Berman, coastal processes specialist for Woods Hole Sea Grant and Cape Cod Cooperative Extension. Typically, town conservation commissions ask waterfront property owners to try various “soft” solutions that still allow the erosion of sand but limit the extreme events.
It’s easy to believe that sand is virtually worthless until you don’t have any. Offshore sandbars and beaches piled high with sand protect property and homes. In some locations rivers carry the material that rebuilds sandbars and beaches, but the Cape must rely on eroding coastal banks and dunes. As developed properties have come to dominate most of the shoreline, owners rigorously defend it, potentially shutting down the conveyor belt of sand that supplies the material to protect beaches and the land. But revetments do something even more insidious, Berman said.
“Even in the best-case scenario, they are static and the shoreline wants to move,” he said. Without the supply of new sand to replace what was taken away by storms, the beach loses the slope or hump that would have dissipated wave energy. Waves then race across the beach and slam into the sea wall. All that energy picks up the sand, suspending it in the water, which then drags it away, essentially scouring out the area adjacent to the wall.
Rebuilding the beach once it’s been scoured out takes a lot more work.
“The sand won’t stay there as well, even with nourishment,” Berman said. “Once you lose your dry beach it’s like pouring (sand) into water.”
For nearly 20 years Eastham’s Conservation Commission has required that property owners dump enough sand on the walls each year to replace what it calculates could have eroded off the coastal banks. Eastham Department of Public Works director Neil Andres said that amounts to 8,406 cubic yards of sand, although he didn’t know the number of walls that were required to replenish sand and said the town had been lax with enforcement until recently.
Beyle used inheritance money to build his wall, which he said cost around $100,000. It will cost him around $3,000 a year to replenish the sand on the wall.
Eastham has the second-highest average erosion rate of any Cape and Islands town, at nearly 4 feet a year. Four bayside revetments are under construction in Eastham this year, Andres said.
“Most of the beaches on Cape Cod are losing more sand than they get,” Berman said. To draw a line in the sand with sea walls and stop the natural process of erosion and accretion is not sustainable. Eventually you need more and more nourishment (sand) to preserve the line you’ve held.”
To Beyle, this is more than just a math problem.
“I grew up here,” he said of his house. “They (the town’s building department) could come in here and say it’s uninhabitable.”
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