Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Town Neck Beach: Past, present, and future?

Paul Schrader and I wrote this article which was published in the environmental supplement to The Sandwich Enterprise newspaper called "Preserving Cape Cod" on September 19, 2008. It is reproduced here with permission of the publisher. The video that we are producing about Town Neck Beach and Old Harbor Marsh has a working title of "Town Neck Beach, Sands of Change" and will be available to Sandwich residents who have Channel 13 on Comcast as well as from the town and school libraries in February 2009. For updated info, see http://randyhuntcpa.blogspot.com/2009/02/town-neck-beach-sands-of-change.html.

Town Neck Beach: Past, Present, and Future?


Editor's Note: Beach erosion is an environmental concern faced by all those who love the landscape of the Cape. Shifting and disappearing barrier beaches and the damage left in their wake are a reality in many locations on Cape Cod and the Islands. In the following article, Randy Hunt and Paul Schrader describe some of the specific problems facing the Town of Sandwich. Mr. Schrader and Mr. Hunt are collaborating on a video that they hope will bring the erosion problems facing Sandwich into the spotlight before it's too late.

The Town of Sandwich and indeed all of the area we know as Cape Cod were created about 25,000 years ago when the last continental glaciers retreated from the area. As the ice melted, it deposited the sand and rocks that make up the surface layer of our geography. Over eons, vegetation grew and created topsoil in some areas while in other places the sand was exposed to the elements. Natural actions of wind and wave and rain have continually modified the original terrain. The wonderful sand dunes we admire and that are the distinguishing characteristic of the Cape are the direct result of these processes.

Human activity has also been a major factor in changes to the land and seascapes. Development and construction have modified primal configurations. Seemingly benign activities like walking through grassy areas of the dunes are likely to disturb the topsoil and vegetation that serve to protect the underlying sand. Once exposed, the sands are easily eroded. Anyone who has constructed a sandcastle or otherwise observed sand at the seashore knows that sand moves much like a liquid. It is carried by ocean currents in the bay and generally moves from north to south in a counterclockwise direction. For ages, sand from the White Cliffs area of Plymouth moved toward Scusset and Town Neck beaches in Sandwich while sand from those beaches moved toward Spring Hill and Sandy Neck.

For generations, the dunes we call Town Neck Beach have served as a valuable attraction, important recreational and economic resource for both locals and visitors. The area is also home to several species of protected birds. Perhaps most importantly, the dunes serve as a barrier between the ocean waves, the marsh, and downtown Sandwich. We are concerned that the buffer that once protected the Town of Sandwich is quickly disappearing.

The most important human impact regarding Town Neck Beach occurred when the Cape Cod Canal was completed in 1914 and renovated in the 1930s. The natural process of sand replenishment was interrupted, and sand that was once deposited on the beach was swept into the canal or farther out into the bay. The problem was exacerbated in the 1960s when the jetties and groins intended to protect the canal were reinforced and lengthened to reduce the movement of sand into the canal. Sand that previously moved into the canal was now being deposited on the northwest side of the canal on Scusset Beach. At the time, it was understood that Town Neck Beach would “require replenishment at suitable intervals.” While this has been done sporadically, it is at best a temporary solution. Unfortunately, it may well be the only one available because the potential alternatives are all prohibitively costly.

The erosion caused by tropical storms has also been a major factor in the loss of sand. Several near breaches have been created, and there is a real possibility that cut-throughs similar to those in Chatham and Martha’s Vineyard could develop. This could quickly sweep away sediment in the marsh and bring the ocean very close to downtown Sandwich. We need not dwell on the consequences of such an event.

The Town of Sandwich has been working with the Army Corps of Engineers and the Mirant Canal Plant for several years to obtain the spoils dredged from the canal and have them placed on the beach. The town has also been working on a plan to relocate the Old Sandwich Harbor inlet. The goal of this plan is “to improve and stabilize the inlet, to provide erosion protection, reduce upland flooding, promote beach stability, and develop appropriate beach renourishment.”

While town, state and federal officials and agencies consider what might be done, there are some steps that we can take to mitigate the problem. In the course of making a video to highlight the problem, we noted that, in spite of warning signs, people trample through the dunes, damaging the topsoil and grasses. Within view of the "No Dogs Allowed On Beach" signs, many people bring their dogs, letting them run free and leaving their waste behind. On one occasion a human apparently thought the area a septic system of sorts: we have the video to prove it. This was accomplished by crawling under the protected bird species "crime scene" tape and climbing up the dune grass to her makeshift porta-potty. To say we were surprised would be an understatement. The word "agape" comes to mind.

Let's face it; we understand the importance of protecting nature much better than we did when we were kids. Memories of skidding down the dunes on mats of cardboard are familiar to many of us. Pulling up some beach grass to stoke the campfire was commonplace. But we also rode home in cars without seat belts, and no one gave a second thought to taking the wheel after several drinks. Times have changed, and we all have learned. We believe we all must be accountable and do what we can to preserve the environmentally sensitive area for ourselves and for future generations. We hope everyone who enjoys the area will use this precious resource with care.


  1. Mr Hunt I am very greatful for your time in evaluating the problems we as a town face in Keeping our beach front stable.

    If you recall more then several years ago I addressed this very topic in public forum and it was not well recieved.

    To this day I still do not understand why all of the snow fence that did provide some stabilizing to the dune grass area was removed and disposed off at the transfer station after the posts holding them up were broken.

    Hundreds of feet of fencing were removed[not burnt up}because of a lack of concern for this protective tool.

    We still can provide a better tool to build back the sand, that so far no one seems to care about doing. The beach front loses and gains sand during the harsh winter months and if the Town of Dennis can install snow fencing along a beach front to provide some protection from the winter storms then Sandwich should also install this fencing as a way to keep it more stable.

    One thing that really stands out is the complete lack of handicap excess at the end of the newly installed board walk entrance to the beach.

    I recently had my brother visit from California and he wanted to get his feet wet one more time .
    He is completly confined to a wheelchair and was looking forward to going out on the board walk and that was a good experience for him. The problem came at the end when we were unable to get him down to the water in his chair.

    Well it seems that the town of Dennis has handicap wheel chairs that go into the water and that is what we did to have him get his feet wet one more time in Massachuseets waters for the last time. We spent several hours out on the sandy sections of Mayflower beach.

    With some one pushing he had the time of his life and a good memory to keep him going as this will be the last time he will ever get a chance to come back home.

    Now I mention this in hopes that the powers that be in the Town will consider handicap excess to every ones beach, not just for those that have two good feet to walk on.

    C Johansen

  2. Your analysis is well received. One simple improvement is the placing of more signs and they should be placed at both ends of the Boardwalk. Also people should be banned from destroying the marsh along the banks of the creek .
    Another simple improvement is the placing of additional barrels at both ends.(The single barrel is almost always overflowing)I cringe when I see plastics floating out on the tide. There should also be a penalty $$ for those who drop litter off the Boardwalk into the marsh. Again signage is needed to educate people.

  3. Mr. Johansen, you'll remember that there were no steps required to walk out on the beach after we placed the Mirant dredge spoils on the beach in 2004. A fall storm carried most of that sand away and in the four years since then, the beach has lowered by several more feet.

    I agree that it is impossible to get someone in a wheelchair down to the beach today. After we place the next dredging spoils on Town Neck Beach, it will again be accessible. Other methods of providing access are simply too costly given the economic situation we find ourselves in.

    With regard to the snow fencing, I'll inquire about its usefulness at Town Neck Beach. I'm sure that there must be some value; however, this is a beach with virtually no sand input. That's the underlying problem. Snow fencing works well further east--from East Sandwich Beach and towards Sandy Neck--where there is sand arriving at the beach. At East Sandwich Beach, some simple measures, including snow fencing, have captured and held sand and they've made good progress against erosion.

    On the other poster's comment, we are looking at creating a more educational sign for people who visit the beach as well as placing additional signage at key traffic areas. We did some of this this year.

    The trash receptacles are a frustrating problem. We constantly encounter people who use them to dump their household trash. The more containers we place out there (and we added several during the summer of 2007), the more they get used by irresponsible people. If I had the time, I'd sift through the trash until I found something to identify the perpetrator. Neither I nor the town has that much resource available.

    In the end, I'd probably support adding an additional barrel at each end of the parking lots during the high season. Some argue that more barrels generate more litter (as opposed to people taking their litter home with them), but I don't subscribe to this idea. Better to have more receptacles.

    People throwing trash into Mill Creek or the marsh should be fined and forced to clean it up. Again, it's the lack of resources to monitor this that makes it nearly impossible. For that matter, I'm just as upset whenever I see anyone toss trash out of their car anywhere, anytime. It absolutely infuriates me. See my post about this at http://randyhuntcpa.blogspot.com/2008/09/top-ten-suggestions-for-litterers.html

    I hope that we can get people to think more about how to be responsible for this fragile beach after they see the video "Town Neck Beach, Sands of Change." When you're down there, keep a vigilant eye and encourage your fellow citizens to respect this and all of our beach and marsh areas.

    Randy Hunt

  4. Mr Hunt,
    Snow fencing can serve a purpose upon which the installation of would keep folks of the dunes and prevent further damage to the grassy areas.

    Snow fencing during the winter months can also sustain the beach front along Town Neck beach during the harch winter storms and in most cases would allow some rebuilding of the frontal part of the beach itself and at the very lease would reduce some of the water force it will recieve during the winter months.

    As to the beach replenshment project we are planning to do with the canal dredging and handicap excess. Unless and untill we actually have a plan in place that addresses handicap excess the Town Of Sandwich will remain as it is today. Placing more sand on the beach does not forfill having an actual plan and wheelchair ramp that allows those in a wheelchair to get on the beach.

    C Johansen


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