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Feds: Cape Cod island cottages endangered, must go

On a speck of island across Chatham Harbor, a weathered doorway opens to a cottage where beach towels substitute for couch covers and an old-fashioned hand pump counts as a kitchen faucet — with no option for "hot."
Image: North Beach Island in Chatham, Mass.
Roger Carroll, an occupant in one of the 11 cottages on North Beach Island in Chatham, Mass., walks from his dingy to the beach on Aug. 23. Five of the 11 dwellings, which are owned by the federal government and leased, are slated to be torn down and must be vacated by mid-September. The Carrolls lease one of the cottages scheduled for demolition. Stephan Savoia / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

On a speck of island across Chatham Harbor, a weathered doorway opens to a cottage where beach towels substitute for couch covers and an old-fashioned hand pump counts as a kitchen faucet — with no option for "hot."

This Cape Cod dune cottage, known as the "Carroll Camp," has no electricity. The only running water flows off the roof into barrels that feed a shower and the sink. At night, the brightest lights flicker from a nearby lighthouse.

But families stay on the island for weeks at a time, spread out among wood-sided and cedar-shingle cottages built between beaches and bayberry bushes. A boat ride is the only way in. The trip covers less than a mile, but feels farther when visitors step into the chilly shallows and head to shore.

"It's like coming to heaven," said Susan Carroll, whose family has leased the tiny, gray cottage for 20 years

But no place is perfect. The ocean that gives the cottage its remoteness is also washing away the 250-acre island.

Last month, the Cape Cod National Seashore told the Carrolls that, for public safety, their annual lease was being terminated and the camp was going to be burned or demolished. Now, the Carrolls and four other families with similar cottages on North Beach Island have until next month to get personal items out.

The decision has brought sadness and outrage in Chatham, where the rustic camps are fixtures on the horizon. Residents say demolishing five of the existing 11 camps is unnecessary, and a pointless hit to the town's heritage.

"I have never seen a more sort of callous and unilateral decision by a government entity in my time on the board," said town selectman Sean Summers. "Those camps are part of our collective soul, really, as a community."

George Price, head of the agency, a National Park Service division which owns the camps, said he realizes the camps are special to Chatham and families whose children "virtually grew up there."

But the shoreline, on the ocean side, is retreating back about 80 feet per year, he added. Two of the camps likely won't make it through the winter and need to be quickly removed before they collapse. And the others have no more than a season or two left. Tropical storm Irene had virtually no effect on the camps but the concern is the next storms inevitably will.

It's far cheaper to remove all the camps at one time, Price said.

"In this particular case, Mother Nature has worked against us," Price said. "We believe the window of opportunity is fairly limited before the majority of the winter storms actually come in."

Chatham's Coastal Resources Director, Ted Keon, agrees with the Seashore's decision, which he says was sudden but not surprising. The erosion is intensifying, the risk of the collapse of the camps is real, he said, and so are the hazards the debris could in create in the waterways.

"(If it's) obvious that things need to get removed, you should remove it ahead of time as opposed to just sitting back and letting it get knocked down," Keon said.

The existing camps first popped up on the beach in the 1940s, after locals paid a few hundred dollars for a plot of land and built the camps as retreats or as hunting and fishing cottages.

The government took over some of the camps after the Cape Cod National Seashore was established in 1961 to preserve the coastline.

Anyone whose camp was built after 1959, or who couldn't prove ownership, lost their camp, but received compensation or usage rights in return. The other camps remain privately-owned.

Today, the Seashore leases each of the five camps it owns for $8,000 a year. The Carrolls, for instance, pay for it by renting out their year-round home on mainland Chatham during the summer weeks they stay at the camp.

The island's recent natural history is dynamic and at times devastating for the camps. It was once part of a continuous barrier beach, but became part of a peninsula in 1987 when the sea broke through south of the camps. Four years later, the so-called "Perfect Storm" of October 1991 wiped the camps out, though many were later rebuilt on sturdy pilings to brace against another catastrophic hit.

Remnants of roads are reminders that the land was recently accessible from the mainland, until the ocean split through north of the camps during an April 2007 nor'easter.

The island is now about 2.5 miles long, two-tenths of a mile wide at its widest point, and high tide creeps to within yards of a couple camps.

No one disputes the island is breaking down, but people want to preserve the camps as long as possible, said Susan's husband, Roger Carroll. He said his camp and others are in no imminent danger, and will sit rock-steady for some time on the deep pilings they were built upon following the 1991 storm. The Seashore made a rash decision for reasons it still hasn't justified, he said.

"They kind of left us alone for all these years, and then all of the sudden they're in a panic to get them all out," he said. "It's like you lost a member of the family."

The small community of camp residents has grown close over the years. But Summers, who doesn't have a camp on the island, said even Chatham residents who don't use the camps value them, seeing them as key reminders of the "fishing and fowling existence" that's the region's true heritage.

Some residents are now pushing to have the camps listed on the National Register of Historic Places, as a way to force the Seashore to consider ways to preserve them.

Summers added that the Seashore acted before consulting with the town about ways to trim the demolition costs or lessen the potential hazards posed by the camps, which Summers believes are wildly overstated.

Price acknowledged, "I could have engaged in a public conversation earlier. That's my error."

Price said he's still listening as town officials and residents suggest alternatives , but he stood by the projections about the imminent danger to the cottages.

"The steady degradation of the shoreline is fact," he said.

Not all island residents are digging in. Arthur Bloomer's family acquired rights to stay at a North Beach camp in the late 1970s, figuring they had 20 years ahead. Three decades later, the 79-year-old is grateful for the extra time, and "philosophical" about the government's decision.

But he added that when the camps are gone, something unique will be lost.

"There's a way of life over there that nobody understands," he said.