This story was co-published with The Weather Channel.
Sixty years ago, Don Hourihan and his father laid the bricks for a rustic home on the Humarock peninsula in southern Massachusetts. Today, engineers warn that a storm could one day burst through this narrow sandbar that separates the Atlantic Ocean and the South River tidal marsh, right next to his house.
"I love it here," Hourihan said. At age 77, he speaks through a tracheostomy collar he's worn since a surgery removed cancer several years ago. "Everything I see, I think of my father."
Hourihan's home is one of 90 on a particularly narrow stretch of Humarock where winter storms wash cobble from the beach every year, routinely blocking the only road in and out. Houses get damaged. Evacuations come with the bigger storms.
This year, the town of Scituate, which includes Humarock, proposed building a $9.6 million artificial dune and raised road to protect the homes.
Yet some residents are prepared to block the project. The town is asking them to sign easements that would cede property rights along the privately owned beach and allow public access. Whatever concerns they have about protecting their homes are being overridden by fear of permanently relinquishing control of their property.
"You don't want to give up the rights to your property and find out the bottom falls out, and you're stuck with nothing," Hourihan said, concerned that the town won't guarantee that it will maintain the project in coming years.
Rising sea levels driven by climate change are forcing communities like Humarock to confront a troubling future. The global water line has risen by about 8 inches on average since 1900, and it's expected to rise about that much or more by 2050.
As public officials at all levels of government try to protect the nation's coasts from rising seas, they're confronting an American ethos that champions individualism over central planning. The federal government has no master plan for adapting to sea level rise. States often leave critical decisions about coastal infrastructure to local governments. And many people would prefer to protect their own property.
Landowners have tried to block the build-up of beaches and dunes in Florida, North Carolina, New Jersey and other states, fearing a loss in value or control over their property.
In many cases, including one that reached the United States Supreme Court, they've eventually been overruled by elected officials or the courts. In Massachusetts, however, where some coastal deeds are based on vague language written centuries ago and where citizens enjoy a powerful role in local government, resistant property owners have had more success.
In Humarock, Hourihan and others are skeptical the town will maintain the project, and they say state regulations make it difficult to build their own defenses.
"We wanted a guarantee it would be maintained," Hourihan said. "We didn't want to have a small Mickey Mouse job and have them forget it, and we gave up our property."
Scituate officials said if only a handful of owners reject the easements, the Humarock project could fall through. John Ramsey, the engineer hired to design the artificial dune and road, has worked all along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. Wherever beach projects hit private property, he said, "it is a total mess."
'A Terrible Way to Manage the Coast'
Coastal towns face a sobering reality: They've been losing land for a century, and they'll lose even more in the decades ahead. To fight this encroachment, states, towns and the federal government have spent billions of dollars bolstering dunes and beaches with sand pumped from the seafloor or imported from inland mines—more than $3.1 billion from 2007-2016, according to data compiled by Western Carolina University.
Beach building is one of the more effective, environmentally friendly measures against coastal erosion, according to geologists and engineers. But some beachfront homeowners have resisted, particularly when they've been obliged to sign easements that open their property to public access.
Before Hurricane Sandy hit New Jersey in 2012, the Army Corps of Engineers was trying to construct 82 miles of protective dunes along the Jersey Shore. When the storm hit, houses behind the 47 miles of dunes that had been completed fared much better than the rest. Yet even after the storm killed dozens of people and caused tens of billions of dollars in damage in New Jersey, many property owners resisted the effort to complete the dunes. Some chafed at the prospect of gazing off their porch at a wall of sand instead waves and whitecaps. Never mind that the wall would help protect them from the next storm surge.
"We are not going through that again," Gov. Chris Christie told reluctant homeowners in 2013, "so that you could sit on the first floor, rather than the second floor, and see the ocean."
Towns published holdouts' names to shame them. Some residents reportedly stuffed dog feces in mailboxes of resisting homeowners.
The storm highlighted the drawbacks of scattershot coastal protection. On Long Beach Island, houses that were towards the edges of the protective dunes suffered damage as a result of the nearby gaps.
"Managing the coast parcel by parcel is a terrible way to manage the coast," said Robert Young, who runs the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines at Western Carolina University.
The Christie administration and some towns used eminent domain against hold-out properties. Some of those legal battles continued to drag into this year.
"It's an issue that seems to crop up across the country," Young said, "but it's also an issue that property owners seem to be losing pretty uniformly."
Most states have broad authority to seize land through eminent domain. Whether or not they'll use it and risk provoking voters' ire is another matter.
In Massachusetts, the answer was no in several cases. When the town of Sandwich wanted to use sand from a dredging project to nourish a stretch of beach, a group of homeowners refused to sign easements. The town moved the project down the coast to a public beach. The property owners sued, claiming the town was breaching its duty by placing the sand elsewhere. A state judge dismissed their claims.
Marshfield, another town just south of Scituate, has stretches of privately owned beach. Jack Sullivan, a citizen member of the town's coastal advisory committee, said the town has elected not to attempt some projects because of the uncertainty of securing easements.
"I don't think anyone has a silver bullet to this," said Bruce Carlisle, director of the Massachusetts Office of Coastal Zone Management, which provides grants and technical support to local governments. "These are private property issues, and they're not to be taken lightly."
Holding Back the Sea
Just inside Hourihan's front door, a wood-framed wind meter hangs on the wall. On a brisk November day, the dial was hovering at a steady 20 miles per hour. Above it, a matching barometer was holding high despite a storm offshore. "I'm a weather watcher," he said.
Behind the house, waves were crashing at the foot of a concrete seawall he installed in the 1970s. The wind blew sea foam past the house and onto the road. And beyond the road was a pile of cobblestones Hourihan said had been pushed into the marsh by town crews after previous storms.
When a storm comes through, the ocean pushes over the low dune, carrying the cobble beach onto Central Avenue, the peninsula's single north-south conduit. The marsh rises, too, flooding the road from the other side. The area was once connected to Scituate, but a gale opened an inlet between here and the town in 1898. Engineers say a new breach could open, right next to Hourihan's house.
Hourihan is surrounded by everything he loves: fishing in the ocean and hunting in the marsh. But the hassle and threat that storms present pushed him to list his home for sale earlier this year. He's in poor health, and he worries about leaving his wife, Betty, to live here alone.
Massachusetts measures damage from coastal storms by counting up repetitive loss claims to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. There were 41 such claims from 2010 through 2015 in Humarock and the surrounding marsh, totaling about $1.5 million.
"Every time we have a significant storm, we have significant over-wash and flooding," said Brad Washburn, the town's planning director. The town then has to spend thousands of dollars to plow the road. "It's costly to the homeowners. It's costly to the town."
Last year, Scituate received a state grant to assess its coastal risks. North Humarock, where Hourihan lives, was given the second-highest priority. The report, written by Ramsey's firm, also identified 14 other vulnerable areas. Protecting them all—by building dunes, seawalls and other infrastructure and, in some cases, by buying out properties—would cost more than $500 million over 50 years. Doing nothing would be even more expensive.
"Do we have those finances? No," said Maura Curran, a member of the town Board of Selectmen, adding that Scituate needs grants to complete any major project, including the Humarock proposal. "It's a difficult thing to work through, because you go through all these steps, you spend a lot of money planning and designing and figuring out what the solution is, and then you're at the mercy of the state or federal government to help fund fixing this. It's not the best approach."
The state has sent Humarock more than $300,000 to design the project, which would feature a nearly mile-long cobble dune in North Humarock. The town also wants to raise Central Avenue, most of which lies below the 10-year flood level, the type of flood expected once a decade.
"It's trying to prolong the longevity of North Humarock," Ramsey said of the project. "Nothing is forever."
Right of Self-Defense?
Humarock residents seem to agree that they need some form of protection from the sea. And yet only one of a handful of owners whom InsideClimate News spoke with is ready to sign an easement that would allow the town's proposal to proceed.
They're concerned the town won't guarantee it will rebuild the dune in coming years. They worry the raised road would act like a dam, trapping water by the homes. Above all, they fear that other people would swarm their beaches and leave trash behind.
Aside from a short stretch of public beach, Humarock's shoreline is private. The easements would allow public access wherever sand and cobble are deposited.
"They want me to give up my right to my property so they can nourish the beach? It's not going to happen, not until they change a few things," said Bob O'Neill, who rebuilt his house on pilings after the "Perfect Storm" of 1991 swept the entire structure into the marsh.
O'Neill and other residents would like easements to be temporary, or to allow people to walk the beach but not to lay down towels and spend an afternoon. Better still, they want to protect their homes themselves.
"I'm not looking for any handout," he said. "I'd do it myself."
O'Neill has hired an engineer to seek a permit to place boulders, called riprap, in front of his home. Such hardened shoreline protections are rarely allowed by town and state officials, and then only after extensive and expensive environmental reviews. These structures can end up worsening erosion for neighboring properties.
"I don't have a problem if anyone wants to protect themselves," said Curran, the town selectwoman. "But it has to be in accordance with a larger plan."
Curran holds out hope that after the town presents a fully engineered proposal early next year, more residents will be convinced of the benefits. If not, the town may move on to the next vulnerable area. "We've got a lot to do."
Without some form of protection, Humarock faces a grim future.
"Because everything is storm driven here, it's not a 'how long'," said Ramsey, the engineer. The worst-case scenario is a nor'easter creating another inlet, destroying whatever is in the way and turning part of Humarock into an island. A new breach could also damage the marsh, magnifying the risk for many more homes and businesses. "When it happens, it's just going to happen."
When it does, it would likely cut just about where Hourihan's cottage stands. He won't be here to see it, though. He's accepted an offer to buy the house and hopes to be out this month.
"It breaks my heart," he said.
Next year, a new owner will have to make the call on whether it's worth allowing public beach access in exchange for a project that may keep a breach at bay.
Top photo: Homes along Humarock Peninsula's rocky beach are at risk from storms and sea level rise. Credit: Steven Edson/Weather Channel