ROCKPORT — Lose the beach or lose out on town revenue? Fix the seawall or do nothing and let the cottage leaseholders stay at their own risk?
These questions and many more are being weighed by the Long Beach Options Committee.
The Long Beach leaseholders own the cottages along the shoreline, but the town owns the land beneath them. As sea levels rise and storms get more severe, spelling danger for the cottages, the town must decide what it will do with its property once the 10-year leases are up in 2023.
Committee members, meeting Wednesday, did not take any options off the table for the town to consider. Chairman Kenneth Kaiser discussed the pros and cons of each and highlighted areas that need further research.
The first option would be to renew the leases. If the town chooses this option, it will continue to receive a substantial amount of revenue. Committee members estimated the town could receive $2.53 million in leasing fees and property taxes by 2024. Also, this option will not likely face any legal push-back from leaseholders.
However, the current leases stipulate that Rockport is on the hook for any property damage due to “negligence” on the town’s part. Potentially, this could mean the town will be liable for any damage the dilapidated Long Beach seawall fails to protect against.
The committee plans to look into options on how the leaseholders could chip in to pay for any seawall repairs or replacements. It is unclear at this time if the repair work would be considered a betterment or special assessment, allowing for additional property taxes.
An updated lease could mention the town is not liable for damages caused by the failing seawall. The town could also include language that would void any lease if the cottage is damaged to a certain degree. Town bylaws state that a home in a flood zone is lost if the cost of damages exceeds 50% of the property value.
The committee fears that any changes to the current leases could open the town up to litigation, and related costs.
The second option, a “managed retreat,” would keep the cottages around until rising sea levels eventually overtake them. The land would be put under conservation to forbid any construction outside of repairs. All the while, the town will conduct repairs to the seawall as need.
Ten- or five-year leases would be available to owners whose properties are not deemed “at-risk” if the seawall fails. Alternatively, the town could buy out the leaseholders while allowing them to stay as long as it’s safe to do so. Cottages not in compliance would be removed.
This option will continue the Long Beach revenue stream, but the money will eventually dry up as the properties get wetter.
The third option is to sell the land and seawall. If the town pursues this option, the committee would recommend selling the property as one large parcel instead of individual plots, and limiting what projects can be built on it.
This scenario would guarantee a substantial sum of cash for the town, but public access to Long Beach wouldn’t be guaranteed. Some pathways on the property would remain public, but a buyer could potentially pull every trick legally possibly to limit foot traffic.
On top of that, Kaiser said the leaseholders would have a stronger legal case if Rockport attempts to sell the property. They could potentially sue the town for failing to protect a natural asset as residents of Ipswich did when the town sold Little Rock nearly a decade ago.
Not discussed was the nuclear “back-to-nature” option as the meeting went overlong. This scenario would see the town clearing out the cottages, utility infrastructure and possibly the seawall to make way for a parking lot similar to that at Good Harbor Beach in Gloucester. Discussions are expected to pick up again at the committee’s next scheduled meeting on Oct. 20 at 4 p.m.
Michael Cronin may be contacted at 978-675-2708, or email@example.com.