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Beach project fiasco in US provides lesson for 7MB

View from Regal Beach’s new sea wall after Hurricane Ian

Posted on March 13, 2024

The Cayman Islands Government may want to rethink plans to spend CI$21 million on imported sand to replace parts of Seven Mile Beach in front of some of the islands’ most expensive real estate after a half-million-dollar sand dune project in Massachusetts took just three days to wash away.

Although the Department of the Environment has said that replacing lost sand without implementing a managed retreat of structures is unlikely to last long, the CIG, under pressure from the tourism sector and property owners, is nevertheless considering the costly project.

In an effort to protect their beachfront homes, residents in Salisbury, Massachusetts, invested $500,000 in a sand dune to defend against encroaching tides. The work was completed last week, but the barrier made from 14,000 tons of sand lasted just 72 hours before it was completely washed away, according to the local TV station.

Like many beachfront neighbourhoods all around the world, the homes in Salisbury started seeing serious damage from strong winds and high tides after a winter storm in December 2022. That small community has learned a hard and costly lesson about building too close to the ocean, and they are running out of ideas to save their homes.

Here in Cayman, the erosion along the southern part of Seven Mile Beach is no longer seasonal and looks increasingly permanent. Because of the erosion, property owners built more seawalls in a futile attempt to mitigate the loss of sand, which caused even more erosion. This created a vicious circle as people tried to protect properties that were built too close to the sea in the first place.

There are major concerns that unless these structures are moved further away from the shoreline, any replenished sand will be lost in a very short period of time. While it might last more than three days, recent experience with an unexpectedly severe nor’wester demonstrates that such a project is doomed to failure, given climate change and rising sea levels.

The sand replenishment project was first discussed in 2021 when then-premier Wayne Panton chaired a task force to examine the erosion problems on Seven Mile Beach. The project is still under review and going through the first stages of a business case process, though not all of the current government is in favour of funding this expensive and potentially flawed proposal.

While the replenishment would benefit the Marriott Resort and a number of luxury condos and beachfront homes of wealthy residents and foreign owners, the task force reportedly concluded at the time that because the beach is a major national natural asset, the government should implement new rules to prevent developers from building on the beach if it made this investment.

Around $21 million was set aside in the 2022/23 budget, but the project has stalled due to concerns about the cost and potential failure. According to a report in the Cayman Compass, in November last year, the Ministry of Lands was working on a strategic outline case after the project was passed to that team.

“We understand the urgency of the re-nourishment as a significantly eroded Seven Mile Beach can have a significant adverse effect on various sectors of the Cayman Islands’ economy,” Chief Officer Wilbur Welcome told the Compass. However, support for the project appears to be on the decline, and even Tourism Minister Kenneth Bryan has said buying sand that could be swept away in the first storm is not the best use of public money.

The Department of Environment has long warned that damage to coastal properties is an ongoing and worsening result of rising seas and severe weather events. The DoE has repeatedly stated that the planning regime needs to be updated with climate policy in mind to deal with a managed retreat and much longer coastal setbacks, putting an end to developers being allowed to build too close to the shoreline.

In Massachusetts, homeowners told WCVB that losing the new dunes in a storm this weekend was a catastrophe, and they have run out of ideas to save their community from the encroaching sea.

Here in Cayman, the owners of property in front of the disappearing beach have not given any indication that they are willing to begin moving their beachfront structures back. Taxpayers are, therefore, unlikely to welcome the government spending $21 million on sand for holidaymakers and wealthy homeowners that may not last past the first storm.


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