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The Changing Shape of Sandy Neck Beach Park, Barnstable & Sandwich

Editor’s note: This is the 8th in a series of articles covering the region’s dramatically changing coastline. Click here to see all of the articles.

Sandy Neck Beach

In this south-facing photo, sailboats can be seen making their way around Sandy Neck’s eastern tip. Photographer – Paul Rifkin

Sandy Neck Beach Park encompasses more than 4,700 acres of land in West Barnstable (and a small portion in Sandwich) overlooking Cape Cod Bay and Barnstable Harbor. Boasting six miles of shoreline, the park features vast beaches, massive sand dunes, forests, marshland, and the historic Sandy Neck Lighthouse, which dates back to 1857. Every year an average of 120,000 to 150,000 visitors flock to Sandy Neck—many via all-terrain vehicles—to enjoy these unique attractions.

Since 1978, Sandy Neck has been designated an “Area of Critical Environmental Concern” by the Mass. Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs because several endangered species including piping plovers and least terns make their habitat in the area. Officials in Barnstable and Sandwich, as well as all the beachgoers who love Sandy Neck, have also been concerned in recent years about another issue pertaining to the area: erosion.

“The last five years are the worst we can remember,” Sandy Neck Beach Park manger Nina Coleman says of erosion’s impact on the area. Prior to that, she says the dune system on Sandy Neck’s Cape Cod Bay side was relatively stable, experiencing only the natural annual cycle of losing sand in winter, gaining it back in summer. The Town of Barnstable helped manage any endangered areas through the use of sand fencing and vegetation. Mother Nature then stepped in, though, causing severe damage during Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and Winter Storm Juno in January of 2015. Following Hurricane Sandy, the Town of Barnstable hired Coastline Engineering, a civil and marine engineering firm with an office in Marion, to provide dredging and consultation services for several problem areas in town, including Sandy Neck.

According to Christine Player, Coastline’s senior project manager, the area of greatest concern at present is the beach’s lower parking lot, which runs parallel to the shore. Player says the dune system standing between the beach and the lower lot—and to a lesser degree, the upper parking lot—has eroded significantly as a result of the recent storms. During Juno, the eastern end of the beach in front of the lower lot lost 30 feet of “sacrificial sand,” or sand the town paid to have trucked in and dumped on the beach as a dune-replenishment tactic. The idea is that this sand could be “sacrificed” or washed away in a storm, rather than the dunes. In the winter of 2013-2014, more than 20 feet of sacrificial sand in front of the upper lot was swept away, threatening Sandy Neck’s septic system. “The trend of where we lose sand changes year by year,” Coleman says.

As of early April, no manmade structures were in imminent danger. However, Coleman says more erosion in the area could threaten visitor access to the parking lot. “We’re working very hard to keep from losing the parking lots,” Coleman says, “but if there is a very large storm, and the lots are damaged, there wouldn’t be enough spaces for the summer beach season.” 

Eastern End of Sandy Neck Beach's lower parking lot

The eastern end of Sandy Neck Beach’s lower parking lot—at left in the photo—is the area of greatest current concern regarding erosion. Photographer – Josh Shortsleeve

Like most if not all areas along the coast, Sandy Neck has undergone geologic changes over the past 150 years. When the existing Sandy Neck Light tower was built in 1857, it was located at the easternmost point of the spit in an area called Little Neck. Today, the lighthouse stands more than 2,000 feet from the point thanks to a rapid accretion rate. “It’s shocking how fast Little Neck is growing,” Coleman says. “A lot of the eroding sand from the front beach is ending up at the point. Sandy Neck is an extremely resilient beach.” 

In the last three years, the Town of Barnstable has made multiple efforts to stem the erosion’s tide by using sacrificial sand. Work completed in December of 2013, December of 2014, and February of 2015 cost the Town a total of $259,000. “These efforts have provided adequate, short-term stability to the dunes so that the parking lots, septic system, snack bar and restrooms have not been damaged to date,” Player states, “but [it is] not cost-effective or sufficient for the town for long-term coastal resiliency and sustainability.” In December of 2014 alone, more than 4,000 cubic yards of sand were added in front of the dunes, at a cost of $90,000. The next month, Juno swept most of that sand away.

Coleman says erosion along the front beach, by the lower parking lot, is a relatively new issue. In recent years some, including Coleman, have been pointing to the Cape Cod Canal and its jetties as one of the causes for an increased rate of erosion at Cape Cod Bay beaches to the east of the canal, arguing that sand which normally drifts along the shoreline to re-nourish eroding shores is getting blocked just north of the canal—by the jetty. Any visitor to the area can observe how Sandwich’s Town Neck Beach, just to the south of the canal, is shrinking, while Scusset Beach to the north, expands. Of course, the canal was built more than a century ago.

Meanwhile, at Sandy Neck, the battle with erosion continues. Katie Gronendyke, press secretary of the Mass. Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, says Barnstable placed additional sand nourishment on the front beach in January of 2016. This sand was dredged from Barnstable Harbor at a cost of $490,000, and Coleman says its placement on the beach improved the erosion situation from “OK” to “really good.”

According to Player, Barnstable officials are looking at potential long-term solutions with grant funding recently received from the Mass. Office of Coastal Zone Management. Some of the measures under consideration for Sandy Neck include a large-scale beach and dune nourishment program, construction of seawalls and other structures to help protect the shoreline, and possibly relocating or reconfiguring the parking lot based upon predicted dune loss in the future. The ever-changing cycle of moving sand continues.

Christopher Setterlund is a freelance writer from South Yarmouth.



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